Responding to “intelligent libertarianism”

a post in which eee_eff will not let certain oxymorons slide on by without notice…

Anytime I see the word “intelligent” close to the word “libertarian” in a recent (since 1993 or so) context, alarm bells start ringing.  So when I see this piece by Tyler Cowen (covering another piece by Matt Yglesias), I have to respond:

Matt Yglesias outlines an intelligent version of libertarianism

Picking up my previous request, Matt responds:

I think libertarianism is best understood as a kind of esoteric doctrine. There’s strong evidence to believe that people who overestimate their own efficacy in life wind up doing better than those with more accurate perceptions. It follows that it’s strongly desirable for society to be organized so as to bolster myths of meritocracy. This will lead to individual instances of injustice and to a lot of apparently preventable suffering, but over the long-term the aggregate impact of growth (which, of course, compounds) on human welfare will swamp this as long as we can maintain the spirit of capitalism.

A separate issue is the welfare of the world’s poorest. Progressive internationalists have this kind of dopey vision of trying to make trade and immigration policy win-win-win for everyone by using redistributive taxation to ensure that everyone shares in the benefits. That sounds nice, but it means that in addition to trying to conquer people’s racist and nationalistic instincts you’re also engaged in a fight to pry wealth out of the hands of the wealthy and powerful. As a political strategy, it doesn’t really make much sense. Why not simply join forces with the wealthy and powerful so as to create a political coalition that’s plausibly capable of overwhelming xenophobia and creating borders that are relatively open to the flow of goods and labor?

That is exactly the kind of response I was hoping for and both points make sense to me.  Here is a related Matt post on progressivism and America.

I would add that Matt’s description is consistent with my belief that the United States should be less progressive than the polities of north and western Europe.  For better or worse, most Europeans are more skeptical of claims of capitalist meritocracy and thus it is harder for them to realize gains by internalizing such an ethic.  Furthermore the non-progressive nature of many aspects of America — by encouraging economic dynamism — helps Europe to be as progressive as it is.  That’s an argument for American capitalism that both libertarians and progressives ought to feel slightly uncomfortable with, yet in my view it is compelling.

First, full disclosure:  I am an unrepentant Europhile, for which I will make no apologies.   Further, as an architect and an urbanist, my perspective is that we are uprooting our society from its traditional spatial and organizational roots, and this grand experiment needs to be called what it is: an experiment, with unknown results.  Libertarian proposals, were they enacted, would only speed this ongoing demolition of the public space.

I am also concerned that the libertarian/capitalist triumphalism stream of thought (cf Thomas Friedman) seems to distill everything down to a purely economic measure, which is exactly what those whom the libertarians worship but apparently very rarely ever read (e.g. Adam Smith, Schumpeter, von Hayek) warn against doing (here’s a post which includes a relevant quote of Schumpeter).   Of course, neither Tyler nor Yglesias stop to actually discuss the criteria or metrics they believe are important, so I’d invite them to clarify that point.

With the disclosure out of the way this is my reply:

There’s strong evidence to believe that people who overestimate their own efficacy in life wind up doing better than those with more accurate perceptions. It follows that it’s strongly desirable for society to be organized so as to bolster myths of meritocracy.

No, it does not follow. Even if individuals do better (by some metric, which BTW you have not defined) it is still possible that society as a whole will be worse off.

This will lead to individual instances of injustice and to a lot of apparently preventable suffering, but over the long-term the aggregate impact of growth (which, of course, compounds) on human welfare will swamp this as long as we can maintain the spirit of capitalism.

There are several assumptions embedded in this and the assumptions at first seem reasonable, but when closely examined, they are not. Again, the choice of metrics hasn’t been made explicit, so I am assuming you are using some form of economic measure (such as GDP) as your primary measure.

There is the assumption that economic/GDP growth is always good or always brings about desirable results. Not so. First, growth can damage the environment and established social/urban structures. Second, growth does not automatically translate into the benefits that people actually will find desirable. Amartya Sen discusses this in Development as Freedom at depth; one particularly telling chart shows increases in life expectancy and increases in GDP for each decade in the 20th century in the UK. They vary INVERSELY. No libertarian/capitalist apologist has responded to the challenge of that.

The effects of building this society are ignored. If you build a society in which there are many “individual instances of injustice” [obviously this society will be contrived so the injustices never happen to Matt Yglesias or Tyler Cowen, but I digress] you don’t seem to realize that you have burdened your hypothetical society with an economy that will have very large negative externalities. For example, at a certain level of economic contrast, you lose the ability to walk outside your house without an armed guard (this is already the case in parts of South America, do you want it to exist in USA too?) At certain other levels you create terrorism and other violence. Now recall that we live in the age of the hyper-empowered individual (9/11 was executed with 30 something people) who are globally interconnected. Thus in your obvious glee to move the USA away from any “northern European progressive” future, are you happy to move it into the social and economic milieu of South/Central America? The bottom line is that the economy is the context of the larger political life and you can’t change one with out affecting the other. I have never seen a libertarian who acknowledges these systemic linkages, and takes responsibility for all aspects of the society which would result, if their libertarian agenda were ever put in place, which thankfully, is appearing more and more remote each passing day….

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Responding to “intelligent libertarianism”

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