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:

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Responding to “intelligent libertarianism”