Oddballs vs. Scholars, For Negative Liberty, Against the Welfare State

There are so many threads crossing one another that it’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll just pick on Brian, our author (of a terrific book) and then go on to disagree with my other commentators.

For Brian: I do think that Armen Alchian has had a big influence on libertarians, much bigger than the obscure Andrew Galambos, although many couldn’t name Alchian. (Come to think of it, I think that fewer could name the late Mr. Galambos). Alchian’s pioneering work on institutions has had a huge impact on the way that libertarians (and those they influence) see the world. (I read his co-authored textbook, University Economics, back in 1973 or so when, as a high school student I took night classes in economics and it had an impact on me and on lots of others who were introduced to economics through his work.) Galambos was a bit of a nutter, but charismatic, whereas Alchian is a sober scholar, but not so charismatic. I think that Alchian will prove to have had the greater impact. It’s not easy to sort things like influence out. Lefevre had an influence on some people who did not accept many of his ideas, but who were enthused about many of them and went on to have great influence. But Lefevre’s own odd contributions didn’t survive. So in a political history, he’s important (if only by accident). In an intellectual history, his “line” peters out, so to speak, that is, his unique contributions were not carried on. I’ll just note that I would not have put as much emphasis on such oddballs as Galambos and Lefevre, but I recognize that they did play a role, mainly by inspiring people who carried on a tradition closer to the mainstream of classical liberal/libertarian thought.

I’ve been surprised by the response of several people to my comment on Brian’s initial essay, to wit, that I am “against” educating for liberty. Far from it. It’s mainly what I do. I just don’t think that it’s enough and I disagreed with what Brian seemed to be saying, that that’s the best use of scarce resources. As per his own admission, some people like political engagement or legal wrangling more than educating, and more power to ‘em. (Er, I mean, I guess, that would be “less” power to everyone!)

For Tyler and Virginia: I’ve recorded a podcast response [.mp3] to Tyler’s podcast [.mp3] on “positive liberty” (Take That!), so I’ll just state that I think it’s confusing to refer to the greater wealth and opportunity generated by conditions of liberty (well defined and legally secure rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) as being themselves “liberty,” positive or otherwise. That’s confusing the consequences of rules with the rules themselves. And anyway, we already have good words to denote wealth and opportunity: wealth and opportunity. In my podcast I offered a simple test: compare the life of Germans in 1888 and in 1938. In the latter case they had a lot more wealth and could make phone calls, listen to music on phonographs, tune in to the radio, and fly in airplanes. So by Tyler’s definition, they had more of that cool “positive liberty,” which is [Tyler’s words] “more important than negative liberty.” But by the mainstream (libertarian) understanding of liberty, they lived under a far worse tyranny and were definitely less free; that was true not merely of those who had been sent to concentration camps, but also of those who were not, as all were subject to power and did not enjoy the conditions of liberty.

Tyler’s approach, as I understand it, is to say that what most people really care about is the exercise of their capabilities of choice, and not being free from arbitrary power or the exercise of control by others over their lives. You don’t say?! Indeed, many people have considered wealth and power as more important than freedom and justice. So what? Through freedom you can get more wealth and opportunity (if not power, in the sense of power over others, which is what a lot of people want) and that might be a good reason for why you should want freedom. OK. But don’t confuse the reason someone might want the freedom (having more prosperity) with the freedom itself. That’s just a confusion, like confusing health and medicine (I take the medicine to become healthy, but I don’t call medicine “health”).

Finally, I’m not a pure instrumentalist. I think that being free is a constituent part of a happy life, which is something desirable for its own sake and not for the sake of something else, an argument I set out [pdf] in response to Jeffrey Friedman’s pure consequentialist critique [pdf] of libertarianism (a critique rather like Tyler’s). I do value freedom for its own sake, as a constituent element of that goal (happiness) that is valuable for its own sake.

Although I share Virginia’s generally skeptical approach toward pure deductivism, I think she has overlooked the role of principles, which need not only be posited, but can be garnered from an understanding of reality. That’s what economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology and other disciplines offer to political theory: the ability to generate principles that will guide us when we encounter cases similar to those we have encountered (or studied) in the past. We have lots of experience with price controls and don’t have to undertake a study of whether they will cause shortages or not. We already know what to expect. (In that sense, economics is the most developed branch of what used to be called the “science of natural law”: if you abolish property rights in agricultural land, you get famine and cannibalism [see Ukraine and China]. QED.)

Moreover, Virginia’s cautions seem focused mainly on economic institutions, which do, indeed, show a variety of possible forms. (For a discussion of the varieties of property in land, see any good book on the economics of property rights; land rights, mineral rights, water rights, and the like can take a variety of forms; there’s no reason to assume that English “freehold” is the uniquely libertarian-approved form of property rights, for example.) But what about other important cases of application of principles? Do we need extensive examinations of the ramifications of prohibiting the persecution of harmless minorities (or harmless majorities, for that matter)? What about the principles of freedom of speech and a free “press” (not enjoyed very widely around the globe)? What about the persecution of gay people, or Roma, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or overseas Chinese, Lebanese, Indians, and so on? Those are settled matters among libertarians. It’s not being “dogmatic” to assert that individual rights should be recognized for all. (My colleague David Boaz has recently highlighted the importance of principles.)

I agree that “focusing on the nation state as the source of all threats to liberty is anachronistic,” but let’s remember the last century: it’s the greatest threat of them all. Al Qaeda is an evil network that should be destroyed, but it’s killed fewer innocents than plenty of states during its existence. And irrational responses by state officials to such dangers can prove to be greater threats to liberty than the dangers from which those responses are ostensibly designed to protect us.

For Tyler and Brink: Lastly, I’m not willing to make peace with the welfare state. I recognize that removing obstacles to wealth creation makes more wealth for the state to redistribute. Overall, however, we’re not (at least in the U.S.) at a historic high for federal government spending as a percentage of GDP. For some time now it’s fluctuated around 20%. I don’t like the fact that state spending has not plummeted as wealth has increased, but that’s a challenge to those who don’t like expansive state power, not something to celebrate.

Brink’s response to Tyler makes some good points, but I think he’s missing the hardest problem here:

Tyler says that “the welfare state is here to stay, whether we like it or not.” I agree. But the question is: what kind of welfare state are we going to have? Is the status quo – in which the welfare state is dominated by universal entitlement programs that mostly shuffle money from one cohort of the middle class to another – really the best we can hope to achieve? Or is it possible to restructure the welfare state so that its primary focus is on the poor and temporarily distressed?

The reason that the welfare state is so hard to control is not because it is helping the poor and the temporarily distressed, but because it has captured so much of the middle classes, taking money from one pocket and putting it in another (minus transaction costs and handling fees, of course). Whether we accept a state-provided safety net is an important question (I’m a skeptic, as I think that the state does more to harm the poor and crowd out mutual aid than it does to benefit them), but the answer has virtually nothing to do with the reasons why the welfare state continues to grow, like The Blob. [Indescribable… Indestructible! Nothing Can Stop It!] The challenge for libertarians is to come up with some means of weaning the middle classes from the cycle of robbing Peter to pay Paula, and Paula to pay Peter. That’s a serious challenge for libertarians in the coming decades, in addition to Tyler’s challenge of fighting nuclear proliferation, pandemics, and global warming, not to mention curing the common cold.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Libertarianism: Past and Prospects by Brian Doherty

    Beginning with a riff on Brink Lindsey’s appeal to the “liberaltarian” left, and David Boaz and David Kirby’s analysis of the libertarian vote, Brian Doherty, author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, notes that “realistic talk of a “libertarian voting bloc” for major parties to fight over – the idea that a double-digit percentage of Americans can be assumed to be in line with libertarian ideas – is a major miracle in libertarian movement terms.” Back in the 1970s, Doherty reports, “the notion that an explicitly libertarian institution should even seriously think about effecting real-world political change was considered – well, it was not really considered at all…” What, then, does history tell us about the best strategy for creating a more libertarian future? “The very libertarian answer is: libertarian energies ought to go to wherever any given libertarian wants them to,” Doherty argues. “The division of labor, operating through free choice, is as valid here as in any other aspect of the economy.”

Response Essays

  • Libertarians in an Unlibertarian World by Brink Lindsey

    Things may look bleak for libertarians these days, but there are grounds for hope, says Cato’s vice president for research (and Cato Unbound editor) Brink Lindsey. Though few Americans self-identify as “libertarian,” there is nevertheless a deep libertarian streak in American culture and a large group of voters who say they are “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” In the long term, Lindsey argues, the goal for libertarians is to multiply the number of libertarians, and he concurs with Doherty in saying “let a thousand flowers bloom.” However, Lindsey argues that in the short term “what needs to be developed is a set of ideas that can serve as the basis for a new political identity. Not a strictly libertarian identity – there simply aren’t enough strictly defined libertarians to base a mass political movement on. Rather, a genuinely liberal identity – one that brings together ‘fiscally conservative, socially liberal’ voters from across the current left-right spectrum.”

  • The Paradox of Libertarianism by Tyler Cowen

    According to Marginal Revolution blogger and New York Times “Economic Scene” columnist Tyler Cowen, there have been a few truly great libertarian developments since the 1970s. However, he argues, they “also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.” Cowen argues libertarians accept this paradox, reconcile themselves to the welfare state, recognize positive liberty as more important than negative liberty, and restructure libertarianism around new threats to liberty such as global warming, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. Such a libertarianism, Cowen admits, would “run the risk of losing its intellectual and moral center. … Many people fear such a development, and I can understand why.”

  • Libertarianism or Liberty? by Tom G. Palmer

    In his reply, Cato senior fellow Tom G. Palmer maintains that Brian Doherty is guilty of “a confusion of two related projects: the promotion of liberty and the promotion of libertarianism, i.e., the theory that liberty should be the primary (or overriding) goal of a political order.” It is possible to promote liberty without promoting libertarian philosophy. This distinction motivates Palmer to dissent from Doherty’s emphasis on education. No amount of libertarian education will make a difference, Palmer argues, unless someone acts to make change for liberty. “If I were to put it as a slogan, it might be: ‘Education doesn’t eliminate trade barriers, legislators do.’” Palmer also quibbles with Doherty’s focus in his book on zany libertarian characters and with his laissez faire approach to promoting liberty.

  • An 18th-Century Brain in a 21st-Century Head by Virginia Postrel

    Atlantic columnist and former Reason editor-in-chief Virgina Postrel argues: “Rather than defining ‘libertarian’ by appealing to deductive logic and so-called first principles, we can better understand the American libertarian movement as a sometimes uneasy amalgam of four distinctive yet complementary traditions, two cultural and two intellectual.” Intellectually, she points to “two seemingly incompatible intellectual traditions”: the modernist Rand-Rothbard quest for certainty “as rational and precise as a skyscraper, as ahistorical as Le Corbusier’s plans to remake Paris” and the empiricist Hayek-Friedman/Hume-Smith tradition, which “looks for understanding, for facts, and for solutions to specific problems.” Drawing on her book The Future and Its Enemies, Postrel warns against fighting the old fights between capitalism and socialism when the real battles is between “stasism” and “dynamism.” She plumps for the possibility of an alliance of libertarian and left dynamists against stasists of all stripes, but concludes with a challenge to the left: “We know we’re liberals. The question is, Are they?”

The Conversation