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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Radical Libertarianism

I've been pretty disappointed with Cafe Hayek because the bloggers and commenters there purposely ignore both the real world considerations of government and the fact that the vast majority of the people in the United States are not even vaguely interested in Libertarian ideals. Part of my disappointment is that, for at least a while, I fancied myself as "Libertarian leaning", but they've convinced me (and not politely either) that I'm nothing of the sort.

Conveniently, the following excerpts from Libertarian Democraphobia relieve me of the effort of having to describe in my own words what I think are some of the fundamental problems of Libertarianism:
The libertarian non-coercion principle is a good abstract first approximation of the liberal presupposition that persons are free and equal. No one has a natural right to rule over another, and no one has a natural duty to obey. The liberal presupposition sets a high bar for the justification of coercion, and thus the justification of the state. Many libertarians think there is no justification. Therefore the only acceptable rule of collective choice is unanimity or full consensus. This is one focus of the debate between anarchist and limited-statist libertarians. On the anarchist side, political power cannot get off the ground, and thus the design of mechanisms to control political power is a non-issue. On the limited-statist side, political power does get off the ground, and thus so does the design of constitutions and democratic institutions. [...]

In any case, libertarians often display a confusing or confused reaction to democracy as it actually exists. The scheme laid out in most libertarian ideal theory is so distant from actual democratic practice that the whole existing system can seem by comparison a comprehensive injustice. When one’s ideal theory implies that politics is by its nature illegitimate and corrupt, one tends to develop a sharply disapproving attitude toward participation in politics. Lots of libertarians, for example, think it’s morally wrong to vote. (There are many structural reasons the Libertarian Party is hopeless, but here’s one reason libertarians tend to be at best half-hearted political activists.) Likewise, incrementalist approaches to policy can never be adequately pure from the perspective of radical libertarian ideal theory. School vouchers are still tax-financed; a system of mandatory personal retirement accounts has a restriction on economic liberty at its heart; and so on. So, not only is politics corrupt and corrupting. There are few democratically feasible libertarian policies that merit support. The public does not want libertarianism. Which means that the public does not want a system that respects fundamental rights. So much the worse for the public, the thinking tends to go. [...]

If libertarians are going to shift the politics of the countries we live in, we’ve got to get it through our thick skulls that many people have considered libertarian ideas and have rejected them for all sorts of decent reasons. We’ve got to take those reasons, and those people, fully seriously and adequately address them. Otherwise, we should probably just accept that libertarianism is a niche creed for weird people and reconcile ourselves to impotent, self-righteous grousing.
Cafe Hayek (especially blogger Don Boudreaux) is, in my opinion, completely mired in "impotent, self-righteous grousing".

The irony is that The Fatal Conceit by Hayek is proudly displayed on their website, and the fundamental concept of The Fatal Conceit is that sweeping away all of society's institutions in order to remake society according to better principles is a really, really bad idea, yet this is exactly what the Cafe Hayek bloggers would do in an instant if given the chance.


erp said...

I've met some real life Libertarians along the way and to a man (very few women, at least back in the day) they're holier-than-thou on steroids.

Anonymous said...

Yet in some ways we're all becoming libertarians now, particularly on social issues. On blog after blog across the spectrum I've noticed how the herd will rush in with rote cant about individual freedom and choice, the relativism of morality and the tyranny of statism no matter what the subject is. If the issue is, say, the explosion in international trafficking of women for the sex-trade, you can almost guarantee the debate will flame out in a consensus that we can't do anything about it because nobody can really say whether or not these women aren't just making an alternative career choice that is best for them.

I've been spending a fair amount of time as honourary gadfly on a moderate leftist blog up here. They're bright guys with a Brit-like sense of humour and aren't excessively dogmatic. But when it comes to social issues, they channel Skipper. We've just had a law passed here banning cell-phone use while driving that caused one of the hosts to go ballistic. Within ten comments he was treating us to a full-blown Ayn Rand phillipic about how it was the first step to the gulag.

erp's comment is telling because it seems to be a primarily (although not exclusively) a male thing, especially a young male thing. Presumably women know what happens when men assert their right to unfettered liberty. They also can be as stridently and viscerally anti-religious as the secular left. To be frank, I think I prefer the compassionate naivity of the young decent left to the bloodless, flinty beggar-thy-neighbourism of these misanthropes. At least there is a beating heart there.

Bret said...

Peter Burnet wrote: "...nobody can really say whether or not these women aren't just making an alternative career choice..."

Is it that "nobody can really say" or that "nobody really wants the government to say". Surely people on at least a few of the blogs are happy to say that they think the international sex trade is a bad thing?

Peter Burnet wrote: "...they channel Skipper."

You say that like it's a bad thing. If everybody channeled Skipper I think we'd be doing just fine.

Peter Burnet wrote: "At least there is a beating heart there."

Maybe so. And perhaps we've achieved an adequate level of wealth to withstand the more limited prosperity that will result.

Anonymous said...

You say that like it's a bad thing.No disrespect to Skipper intended, but I'm sure he wouldn't disagree that we don't exactly see eye to eye on such issues.

But Bret, what do you see as the main difference between the libertarians who are trying your patience and, say, a fervent Reaganite or contemporary National Review fan?

Bret said...

"what do you see as the main difference between the libertarians who are trying your patience and, say, a fervent Reaganite or contemporary National Review fan?"

Primarily a matter of degree. I haven't read a lot of the National Review so I'll have to stick to "fervent Reaganite[s]", and even with those folks, I think there's a bit of variance.

A Reaganite might say, "the government can't solve all your problems, in fact the government is often or even usually the problem." The Cafe Hayek blogger (Boudreaux in particular) says that it is illegitimate, corrupt, and immoral for the government to ever address any problem outside of contract and law enforcement.

I might question the wisdom of having the government address certain problems, but I wouldn't claim the activity to be illegitimate and immoral.

A secondary problem is that of practicality. A Reaganite typically would try to work with the system and understands the limitations and the incremental nature of doing so.

As an example of the extremism at Cafe Hayek, in response to a claim that the government should have absolutely no involvement with regulating credit cards, I asked, "So no (government) restrictions whatsoever? How about if you agree to be
executed if you default on your credit card debt?" A typical answer: "the answer to your original question is YES. If someone signs a contract agreeing to being executed in case of default, then he/she should be."

I don't think a fervent Reaganite would agree with that.

erp said...

Peter, come in from the cold already.

I thought I had the monopoly on hyperbole around here.

Women being sold across national boundaries? Is this a big problem. Slavery is already rightly outlawed in the civilized world.

Your example of a person voluntarily agreeing to be murdered if he defaulted on his credit card payment is silly. Murder for any reason is already rightly outlawed in the civilized world.

We allow people to declare bankruptcy, so the people to whom they owe money suffer instead of them. Is that fair?

Perhaps if people knew there wasn't a safety net, they'd be more careful about getting in over their heads financially, avoid getting involved with booze, drugs, gambling and other vices and if knowing the pitfalls, they go ahead and jump in chasm anyway, not once, but again and again, why should the rest of us care?

If that's what you mean by flinty misanthropic behavior, put me in that column.

PS: If the young decent left didn't vote, I'd have no problem with them.

PPS: If everyone was like Skipper, it wouldn't matter what kind of a government we had.

Bret said...

erp wrote: "Your example of a person voluntarily agreeing to be murdered if he defaulted on his credit card payment is silly."

Is it?

It's an implicit contract term when someone gets a loan from a loan shark.

Hey Skipper said...

The problem with libertarianism is with its complete inability to deal with public sphere problems. For a couple instances:

We have cars. In a libertarian world, which side of the road do we drive on?

Information costs. No one can be expert in everything. In a libertarian world, how much does it cost (or how much does it impede transactions) for me to become sufficiently expert in house construction to confidently buy one if I don't have any recourse after the fact? Now multiply those costs across all significant transactions. The libertarian argument that inferior or fraudulent products will fail of their own inadequacies has so many implicit assumptions that it is invalid more often than not.

Free riding. So long as I am the only one dumping my sewage, and everyone else is hooked up to the sewer system, no problem. So why should I pay anything at all? Would something as seemingly essential as a sewer system even exist in a libertarian world?

Laws, and central authorities to enforce them, are essential to preventing a world like Sicily, or, worse, Somalia.

There is no such thing as a good theory that doesn't work in practice.



If the issue is, say, the explosion in international trafficking of women for the sex-trade ... nobody can really say whether or not these women aren't just making an alternative career choice that is best for them.Sensational, but changing the terms in a very real world way shows the hole in your reasoning.

Not too long ago in LA, the police busted a garment manufacturing operation where illegal Chinese immigrants were held as slaves. Does that invalidate the decision those immigrants made to seek work in the US? Does it mean that working in the garment industry should be illegal because some of the workers were internationally trafficked?

Obviously, no, and no. Changing the occupation from sewing to sex does not change anything, because the problem is coercion, not occupation. Put differently, if it was possible to eliminate all the negative externalities of the sex trade, would you still be against it?

BTW, do not dismiss that as an airy hypothetical. Craig's List is achieving that end as we speak.

If a woman meets a guy at a bar and chooses to take him home, that is ok. If she accepts money for that, it is not. What makes the state competent to allow one private decision, yet ban the other?

We've just had a law passed here banning cell-phone use while driving that caused one of the hosts to go ballistic ...I have no idea why the host went ballistic, but I can see why such a law is kind of silly. The problem is that sometimes cell phone use (and drinking, kids in the back seat, eating, ad infinitum) can result in reckless operation of a motor vehicle, which is what the law should focus on.

What we have instead is a legal code that has become a Hydra, and societies that have become captive to rent-seeking lawyers.

(An small example of the difference. The Navy flight regulations are negative: if the book doesn't say you may not, you may. The AF flight regs are positive, unless it says you may, you may not.

The Navy regs are hundreds of pages long, and serve to further demonstrate it is impossible to prove a negative -- that is, it is impossible to amass a list of everything that needs prohibiting, never mind memorizing the darn thing.

The AF flight regs are roughly 50 pages long.)

Anonymous said...

Put differently, if it was possible to eliminate all the negative externalities of the sex trade, would you still be against it?That's a fair question to which I am not sure I can give an logically pristine answer and for which I doubt there should be one. We know that blanket prohibitions against vice tend to be self-defeating and bring their own corruptions in return, but to pretend vice isn't vice, just healthy folks making choices that are good for them, strikes me as denial of the first order. We know banning the sex-trade is futile, but we also know all manner of incidents like drugs, crime, exploitation, etc. go with it, legal or not, not to mention busted marriages. For a more traditional conservative, the problem lies in David Cohen's insightful remark that public freedom rests on private piety, and if you are uncomfortable with the word piety, perhaps reverance will do. So I guess my quandry is how do you accept it will always be there to some degree while keeping it illicit/shameful/private for most folks. No easy answer except perhaps that ideology is more harmful than not in dealing with this one.

Skipper has rightly pegged the libertarian inability to consider the public realm, but I think it goes some ways beyond that. They talk and act as if government is the only coercive force in society and that it can never play a positive role in protecting and regulating. To be frank, this issue seems to divide Americans from many of their conservative brethern in the rest of the Anglosphere, not because we are statists, but because we don't tend to see it in such everlasting, first-principled terms or with all the slippery slope worries. We tend to start more empirically with the realities of the here and now. The poor, sick, incompetent, cheated, stupid, disabled, exploited, exploiting, unlucky and violent will always be among us and they're always going to act like they always have. I see nothing offensive, in fact much admirable, in accepting that and using some measure of government to deal with it, provided nobody starts dreaming about grand government-sponsored transformative cures. Another good example is urban planning. It seems to me obvious that a modern city with an ideological devil-may-care attitude to private development and without safe, affordable transportaion, parks, libraries, recreation facilities, organized sports for youth, proper traffic planning and even some measure of zoning is going to have a lot of problems. We may disagree strongly on the extent and details, and I would certainly agree it can be a dangerous game that easily gets out of control, but surely it is more than a little fevered to link these to the road to serfdom.


No need to deal with such dramatic examples as sex-slavery or execution for debt. What would you say to the beefy libertarians in your neighbourhood who assert that government has absolutely no right to restrict their freedom by making them wear clothes in public and who demonstrate they mean exactly what they say? C'mon, erp, they're only bodies!

erp said...

Peter, you brought up international sex trade and execution for unpaid debt. As for nudity, why would you think I would care about it? Most people past their twenties aren't their best unclad as a visit to a topless beach will prove and I'm not now, nor have I ever been, an upper or lower case libertarian.

We, the People, not only have the right, but the responsibility to make laws for our safety and convenience. Communities provide amenities to attract like-minded residents who wish to pay the price for them. Parks, good schools, libraries, attractive architecture and lots of open landscaped public areas, etc. are costly. Those who don't want to or can't pay* for these niceties can live in less well appointed areas, but that's not good enough for the planners and know-it-alls who want to decide how things should be.

They force urban renewal down the throats of people with no interest in traffic free esplanades, cutesy boutiques, six dollar cups of coffee and pretentious free-form statuary. They tear down urban neighborhoods because they don't meet with their vision of beauty, then build hideous "projects" and wonder why the denizens start vandalizing them even before they're finished.

*Gives those who want to move on up incentive to pursue the American dream.Bret, "The Sopranos," not withstanding, there's not much in the media about loan sharks murdering or kneecapping their debtors. Do you think it's a big problem?

Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "The problem with libertarianism is with its complete inability to deal with public sphere problems."

There is no (or an extremely minimal) public sphere in a libertarian world. In a libertarian world, the private owners of a given road would set the terms and conditions (and price) of use and those terms and conditions would include which side to drive on. Libertarians would counter that private inspection companies would be formed if the government didn't do it and your house would be worth substantially more at sale if it was inspected during construction by such a company. There would be no such thing as free riding because everything would be owned by some entity. Etc.

My problem with Libertarianism is that I believe that government can and should own certain things and that the majority can and should set some rules of the game.

Bret said...

erp wrote: "...there's not much in the media about loan sharks murdering or kneecapping their debtors. Do you think it's a big problem?"

It happens. Clearly it wouldn't happen very often because if you pledge your life as collateral, you're very, very likely to make good on your side of the bargain. Also, the mob needn't kill or kneecap everyone who defaults - they only need to make an example of an occasional borrower.

However, it would be a big problem if it were legal for lenders to accept a life as collateral. They could certainly charge lower rates (defaults would be much lower) and that would attract a certain set of clients.

I think it should remain illegal to pledge your life as collateral in a contract. At least some of the extreme Cafe Hayek think it should be okay.

erp said...

Bret, joking aside, why would a businessman accept as collateral a borrower's life? It has no value other than to scare his other debtors. Better to enslave him and either sell his labor or make him work for you.

In any case, it's doubtful either of these scenarios would become law here. Cafe Hayek blog is worth a look-see.

Hey Skipper said...


I am not for a moment pretending vice is something else, or is a healthy choice. Rather, the problem is to what extent the state should decide for its citizens what is in their best interest. Further, criminalizing consensual conduct ignores specific context.

In all cases where women voluntarily engage in commercial sex, they are doing so, by definition, because they perceive that conduct as being the best option on offer. We may rightly deplore the circumstances that lead to that conclusion, but they do not go away simply because the state puts this particular choice out of bounds. On what basis do we say to Elliot Spitzer's paramour that she made a bad choice?

I read an NYT article recently about a website called something like Its whole angle is to match men of fairly significant means with women willing to be kept at a style to which they prefer to be accustomed. I couldn't find a working link to the article, but here is a precis.

This leads to the definitional problem: is it a vice because it is a vice, or because the state says it is a vice? One enduring strain of human nature is men's quest to control women; all the monotheistic religions are pretty clear on that score, Islam notoriously so. With the link between reproduction and sex completely optional, I simply cannot think of a coherent reason to ban sex for money. It certainly speaks to an atavistic desire to control women's bodies, but the inherent problems of doing so renders the whole exercise ridiculous.

By all means, control the externalities, but where the conduct does not lead to externalities, it is none of the state's business. BTW, I do not consider broken marriages one of those externalities. The problem is infidelity, not commercial sex.

This entire argument also applies to drug prohibition. The state furiously punishes private consumption of certain substances, at astonishing cost. How about controlling public behavior, and leaving private consumption up to individuals?


Your example of urban planning is excellent. Homeowner's associations with coercive power exist because in a libertarian environment, there is nothing stopping your neighbor using junk cars as lawn ornaments.

Parks, libraries, etc, also would not exist.

Communists, those that are still around, anyway, insist that communism will work, it is just that the real thing hasn't been tried.


And it doesn't make any more sense if you use Libertarianism instead.

Pure libertarianism is a non-starter. It has been tried, and its name is Somalia. However, that doesn't mean that government has gone way, way, beyond its proper remit.

Hey Skipper said...


There is no (or an extremely minimal) public sphere in a libertarian world.Well, that is the problem. In the real world, the notion of a lone human makes no more sense than that of a lone ant. Where there are humans, there are public spheres.

Yes, I understand that in a libertarian world, private owners would set the terms and conditions, etc.

In a libertarian world, roads would not exist. Nor sewer systems, or airports, or electrical grids, etc. Each of these things rely upon standards, which would not exist without some imposing central authority. Think about something extremely simple like railway gauge.

My problem with Libertarianism is that they handwave all that away, and assume effect without cause. Sure a private inspection company could be formed. Inspecting to what standard? What lumber dimensions, sheet rock thickness, pipe burst strength, circuit loading, ad infinitum?

Sure, the market could eventually settle on a best practices kind of thing.

But the aforementioned railway gauge problem suggests that process would take forever.

Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Burnet;

Your points are one of the reasons I have moved from pure libertarianism to a minarchist consent maximimalist. In contrast to pure libertarianism, this view accepts that a purely consensual society can't exist with real humans, so instead we should strive to build systems that provide as much consent as possible.


"Each of these things rely upon standards, which would not exist without some imposing central authority."

That's simply not true. Which imposing central authority created this software system you use to comment? If there is, in fact, one near perfect example of pure libertarianism creating a public sphere, it is the Internet.

Hey Skipper said...

If there is, in fact, one near perfect example of pure libertarianism creating a public sphere, it is the Internet.Okay, you got me there. I didn't think of that.

However, I think the examples I gave are fair in and of themselves. IIRC, standardizing railroad gauges, as simple as that should have been, really was a problem.

If so, then it seems that libertarian solutions are possible under some circumstances, and either improbable, or very slow, under others.

Libertarians and minarchists, IMHO, neglect free riding in two ways.

The most obvious is where people obtain the benefit of something without having to pay for it. The classic example is the childless insisting they are being cheated by having to pay through taxes to educate others' children, while simultaneously benefiting from the literacy of those children.

By far the less obvious example is being able to take certain types of information for granted, that would otherwise be very difficult to get. If a house passes inspection means it complies with a set of codes about which I need not make myself expert.

Up through the mid-70s here in Anchorage, construction codes were lax to the point of non existence. If you are looking at a house built before about 1977, you have to be real darn careful what you are getting into. After that, you can take the basics for granted.

I'm not a minarchist, because there are way too many examples where minarchism is a good theory that doesn't work in practice.

And there are also way too many examples of government gooning things beyond recognition. Anyone want more CRA?

Anonymous said...

I simply cannot think of a coherent reason to ban sex for money.Many men can't, at least not until they are asked to imagine their daughter announcing to everyone at their graduation ceremony that they've elected to pursue a career at it.

Anonymous said...

There are some other problems with today's libertarianism, as least as it is expressed in the blogosphere, that transcend abstract issues of government. Many of them are so addicted to their simplistic top-down theories that they are starting to ressemble 1930's marxists in that the theory is their first loyalty and their rhetoric is skirting the bounds of the subversive. It also absolves them from factoring in or even caring what the muddled, decent middle thinks and wants. Up here, quite a few "conservative" blogs are really dogmatic libertarian blogs and some of them are flirting with open racism and championing some very sordid types and ideas. Ideology is not supposed to be a six-step "how-to" manual.

I'm beginning to think conservatism needs to shut up for a while, get away for a retreat somewhere and re-think and re-group or it is going to be marginalized for a long time and be associated with the shrill and the wacky. I'm getting really frustrated about going to bed after reading sober, serious, worrisome critiques of Obama's bailouts and then getting up in the morning to see we're the laughing stock of the world because we've got our knickers in a knot over Grey Poupon.

A good example of the dangers of marginalization is our reaction to the bank failures. Conservatism, generally speaking, was far to quick to simply fixate on ideas like "creative destruction" and analyse the problem as if we were talking about used-car dealerships. A lot more thought should have gone into the question of whether financial institutions have or should have a trust relationship with their clients. There was a lot of "how could you have been so stupid?" reactions to those who lost their homes, went bankrupt, etc. but no undertsanding that many would legitimately answer: "because they told us incessantly we could and that it made sense--don't they know?!" My own view is we should have been as enraged as the left, but that rather than impoverish the country as a quick fix, we should have marched six bankers out at dawn for a public execution and told the rest of them to fix it all fast to avoid a similar fate. Going Galt, indeed.

Anyway, I realize I may be dabbling in heresy here, but don't complain to me if we are in the wilderness for several decades muttering about Friedman and Hayek while everybody else is at the movies screaming wildly when they hear: "Hi, I'm Clyde Barrow and this here's Miss Bonny Parker. We rob banks."

Hey Skipper said...

Many men can't ...Must. Resist. Making. Lawyer joke.

Susan's Husband said...

Only if you could have put a few Congressmen (such as Frank and Dodd) in the line up as well.