Liberaltarianism: Back the Future

Here are the sort of political/economic thinkers whose substantive views I find most congenial: Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, James M. Buchanan. If I tell most highly-educated people that these are the thinkers whose views of desirable institutions are most like mine, they might infer that I am some kind of rabid libertarian ideologue. But when I actually defend something like the arguments for an economic safety net each of these giants of libertarian thought actually set forth, lots of libertarians accuse me of not really being libertarian at all. And many liberals act surprised, as if I'm being saucily iconoclastic by wandering so far off the reservation. I can tell them that Hayek was actually in favor of a guaranteed minimum income and that Friedman basically invented the idea behind the EITC, but they'll still think I'm some kind of congenial squish. But what I am is a market liberal just like Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan — the same intellectual role models who make me a rabid libertarian ideologue. So, which is it?

Frankly, “liberaltarianism” and “progressive fusionism” don't really amount to much beyond what Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan thought anyway. So the fusionism here isn't really a fusion of anything. It's just seeing our way back to a pre-existing economically literate political liberalism.

Here's my conjecture about why this now looks more like an attractive position than it might have a few years back.

The 20th century libertarian-conservative alliance was based on anti-communism/socialism. The reasonable, sophisticated consequentialist pragmatism of the great 20th century market liberals seemed an insufficient bulwark against the slippery slope from the liberal, capitalist welfare state to full-on illiberal, totalitarian socialism. (Indeed, Hayek himself made the slippery slope argument powerfully, though unsoundly.) So there was a good deal of motivation for radical anti-socialists to coordinate around strongly categorical prohibitions against state coercion.

Misean economics, disinfected of the open-minded empirical consequentialism of Mises' Liberalism, and filtered through Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard's peculiar views of rights and coercion delivers a powerfully moralized brief for capitalism that calls into question even taxation for the purpose of financing genuine public goods. That Rothbardians and Randians have wasted so much time fighting with each other on the question of the minimal state versus anarcho-capitalism obscures their unity on a rights-based bulwark against the slide from the welfare state to socialism. Sadly, “libertarianism” has become identified rather strongly with this ideology — an ideology some of the thinkers most strongly identified with libertarianism, like Hayek and Friedman, never shared.

The death of socialism as a viable competitor to the liberal-capitalist welfare state makes continued slippery-slope-to-socialism thinking look densely anachronistic. Other liberal welfare states, like the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, etc., have moved in a rather more market-liberal direction, becoming rather less of a soft-socialist middle-ground between the American model and full-on economic socialism. The question these days is whether the U.S. will have the good sense to adopt more rational market-based old-age pension policies, like Sweden or Australia, or lower corporate tax rates to a level more in line with the rest of the wealthy world. Slightly higher personal tax rates and slightly more redistribution is a possibility, but a slide into socialism just isn't on the table. In this context, the negative income tax looks much less like a dangerous concession to the world-historical forces of evil.

Meanwhile, with the obsolescence of the anti-communist alliance with conservatives, many libertarians have sloughed off much of their previously tactically useful sympathy for socially conservative initiatives. Freed to be full-on social liberals, many libertarians are left sensing a much deeper cultural affinity for the left than the right. And this leads naturally to seeing more clearly their ideological affinities with welfare liberals. And then you read thinkers like Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan, and you think: Oh, yes. This is extremely sensible. And now that the welfare-liberal elite has become rather more economically literate and is no longer sighing over five year plans, there is no reason to think they cannot find this sensible, too.

So that's where I'm at. An old-fashioned market liberal who thinks Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan get it right, and who thinks Rawlsian welfare liberals should be able to recognize themselves in these thinkers.

Please Discuss

1) Libertarians and many conservatives often talk about lower taxes as a matter of liberty. But a higher tax isn't more coercive than a lower one. You're either being coerced or you're not. A guy who mugs five people with thin wallets is no less guilty of coercion than a guy who mugs five people with thick wallets. The harm from coercion might be greater if more is taken, but there is no more or less coercion. But if you don't think that the size of the opportunity set is a matter of liberty, then you should not think of lower taxes as a gain in liberty, but just as a reduction in harm. Yet libertarians and conservatives don't tend to talk this way. Why not?

2) The average citizen of Singapore has fewer politically recognized rights but is freer than the average citizen of India.


Positively Heretical?

Skepticlawyer reports on a Tyler Cowen talk in which he divulges several “libertarian heresies,” one of which Skepticlawyer records as follows:

Next, he argued for a form of positive liberty. This is not the positive liberty of Isaiah Berlin, with its totalitarian tendencies and desire to tell others how to live – something that has plagued the political left for many years and arguably persists to this day. Rather, Cowen’s positive liberty is closer to Amartya Sen’s account of ‘capabilities’ – people should be able to do certain things, and the most successful society is one where the most people can do the most things. Then – and this is where there was an audible gasp around the room – he argued that roughly 70% of the liberties worth having fall into this ‘ability’ version of positive liberty.

Once people had cleared up that he wasn’t riffing on a notion of ‘ve vill give u zees because vee think it vill be gooood for you’, some of the grounds for the audible gasp drained away. Cowen’s and Sen’s ‘positive liberty’ has a modesty absent from Berlin’s account, and lacks the obsession with inequality that – later in the address – Cowen dismissed using Hayek’s words: as a ‘category mistake’.

This is pretty much what I think, too. And the fact that some libertarians find it so annoying is one reason I am likely to classify myself simply as a liberal. Of course, most liberals don't want me, because I'm such a libertarian, so what can you do?

Anyway, in the comments of Tyler's post pointing to Skepticlawyer's account of his talk, Dan Klein writes:

Two points on Tyler's talk (as summarized by skepticlawyer blog):

1. It might be good for Tyler to speak of positive capabilities as “positive liberty,” but I think that, nonetheless, his doing so is bad for humankind (as compared to his just speaking of positive capabilities).

2. The expansion of positive capabilities enhances liberty ONLY by the channel that it reduces the coerciveness of restrictions. The coerciveness of a restriction ranges in magnitude, and a restriction is less coercive the less important to you it is. Expanding positive capabilities reduce the importance of any particular restriction. But it is only through this channel that the expansion of positive capabilities enhances liberty. Thus, “negative” liberty remains primary. Positive capabilities figure in only through the channel of negative liberty. Robinson Crusoe, alone on a desert island, is perfectly free, even though his positive capabilities are piss poor.

I don't really follow Klein's first point, since I find that it is perfectly good English to say things like “Now that Chad is making a bigger salary, he is at liberty (or, more naturally, free) to travel more often.” I'm all with Dan about the misuse of language when it comes to “libertarian paternalism,” but I think he's acting in something like the revisionist spirit of Sunstein and Thaler on this one: he thinks we'll be better off if we stop using “liberty” in one of its perfectly ordinary, widely accepted senses. I don't mind prescriptive semantics, but revisionist prescriptive semantics seems a waster of energy.

I think I just straightforwardly disagree with Klein's second point, though I'm not certain I understand it. An individual's feasible set of options can be bigger or smaller. There is an obvious, conventional sense of 'freedom' and 'liberty' in which people with more options have more freedom or greater liberty. Coercion is one way to limit the size of that set — it takes away the individual's liberty to choose some elements of the set in an especially salient way. Coercion is such a salient and dangerous threat to the availability of our options (to our ability, our freedom, to choose) that there is a perfectly good sense of 'liberty' that focuses exclusively on its presence or absence. Norms against aggression and theft are very important, and so it very important that we always remain jealous of our liberty in this sense. But isn't the point of reinforcing norms of non-coercion maintaining the openness of the alternatives that would otherwise be foreclosed by violence or the threat of violence? Robinson Crusoe strikes me as the perfect illustration of why it is that positive liberty — the size of the substantive opportunity set — is primary. He's got total negative liberty and it's good for bupkis.

Wherein I Do Not Accept Crispin Sartwell's Challenge

Crispin Sartwell writes:

do me a favor?: cut and paste this everywhere. it's a…marketing ploy. but it's sincere.

A Philosophical Challenge

My irritating yet astounding new book Against the State argues that

(1) The political state or government rests on force and coercion.
(2) Force and coercion are always wrong if they can't be morally justified. (That is, the use of force is wrong if it lacks a moral justification.)
(3) The arguments for the moral legitimacy of state – for example those of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Hegel, Rawls, and Habermas – are unsound.
(4) Hence, state power has not been shown to be morally defensible.
Until you show me otherwise, I conclude that government power is in every case illegitimate.

Not only are the existing arguments for the legitimacy of state power unsound; they are pitiful. They are embarrassments to the Western intellectual tradition.

So I issue a challenge: Give a decent argument for the moral legitimacy of state power, or reconstruct one of the traditional arguments in the face of the refutations in Against the State.

If you can't, I insist that you are rationally obliged to accept anarchism.

Henceforward, if you continue to support or observe the authority of government, you are an irrational cultist.

We're all anarchists now, baby, until further notice.

I may agree with Sartwell about legitimacy, depending on what he means by it. But I detect a missing premise or two. For example, that in the absence of a decent argument for the legitimacy of state power, you are rationally obliged to accept anarchism. Aren't you rationally obliged to accept the social system that does best relative to the values you care about? So what if human flourishing, not legitimacy, is your greatest concern. You can still accept that all states are illegitimate. But suppose the path to the best feasible anarchy leaves people worse off in terms of flourishing than in the best illegitimate states. It seems, in that case, you would be rationally obliged to support states that do better for people than anarchy, despite their illegitimacy. In which case, it would be irrational cultlike behavior to endorse anarchy just because it is not illegitimate.

Now, some people would say that doing better for people than the relevant non-state alternatives is all it means to say government is legitimate or coercion is justified in the relevant sense, but I don't think so. It seems perfectly coherent to me to say both that an instance or pattern of coercion is morally unjustified and that it leaves its victims better off than they would be in the nearest anarchist possible worlds. In that case, you just have to choose between flourishing and legitimacy.

I think moral and political philosophers have a bad tendency to make all normative vocabulary line up. So you can retrofit all moral language so that “justified” just means “best for flourishing.” But I think that we in fact have multiple conventional moral vocabularies that are orthogonal to one another, which relate messily, and sometime incoherently. In the absence of a revisionist account of moral terms that gets them all to march in a single direction, you just have to accept that sometimes its best (according to one conventional moral conception) to do the wrong thing (according to another conventional moral conception) and there is nothing internal to reason or morality, as such, to tell you which conception generally carries overriding force.

Anyway… The point is: Showing that the state is not legitimate does not deliver anarchy because “If the state is not legitimate, then it is not morally defensible” is a false premise. The existence of a moral justification, in terms of flourishing, say, doesn't entail final moral justification, since there is no fact of the matter about the final authoritative moral vocabulary. And the language of “legitimacy” may have its own internal logic that is at some level indifferent to flourishing. So showing that the state is not legitimate need not entail that it is morally indefensible.

Note: I am not sure whether I agree with myself.

Collectivism and Meaning

Great stuff in today's WSJ from Cato executive veep David Boaz on the collectivist blowhards running for president.

Messrs. Obama and McCain are telling us Americans that our normal lives are not good enough, that pursuing our own happiness is “self-indulgence,” that building a business is “chasing after our money culture,” that working to provide a better life for our families is a “narrow concern.”

They're wrong. Every human life counts. Your life counts. You have a right to live it as you choose, to follow your bliss. You have a right to seek satisfaction in accomplishment. And if you chase after the almighty dollar, you just might find that you are led, as if by an invisible hand, to do things that improve the lives of others.

Right on. So why the nonsense? Arnold Kling says it's Hansonian altruistic signaling. Sure, there's some of that. But why does this get a grip on us? Why are people such suckers for the idea that collective sacrifice is a source of meaning.

Here's a question. Is sacrifice for grand collective projects really meaningful? Probably it is. But the reward, the compensation for sacrifice, is indifferent to the content of the project. Probably genocide is meaningful for those who devote themselves to it. Religion is meaningful, too. But it's a pack of lies. Meaningfulness is too promiscuous, justifies too much. I suspect there's little sense in mounting an argument against meaning, per se. Everybody wants it, even if we badly overestimate how much we need it. But I think we're obliged to do better in discriminating between sources of meaning and their effects. We tend to indulge people's irrational fixations when they claim that they find them “meaningful.” But why? That it is “meaningful” to X may be a reason to be especially hard on X, if X is dangerous and meaning is really so attractive. Collectivism is meaningful, but it is mindless, pathetic, and the essential fuel for the greatest cruelty. That it does feel sublime to submit to the will of the whole, to lose oneself in something bigger, that it is a special kind of bliss to transcend the small grubby thing that is one's own small life, is why human beings will so cheerfully slaughter one another. This should probably be discouraged.

"Irrational" Choice and the Persistence of Lives Well-Lived

Say you think the falsehood of the homo economicus model provides some kind of special basis for a new kind of paternalism. Does that mean you think people up to now have been making a hash out of their lives? Maybe you do, which is why you think people continue to smoke or get really, really fat. But, look: lots of people manage to live a long time, save enough money for retirement, and even get along with their kids. How do they ever do it? It seems to me that strict rational choice assumptions are false and, also, most people do a fine job of living their lives. So, yeah: false theories of behavior tend not to do a very good job of accounting for lives well-lived. If you had thought that lives could not be well-lived unless some theory was true, then the persistence of good lives after the death of that theory ought to put the thought to rest, shouldn't it?

Barr – Root

I am not excited. Nor would I have been excited had Mary Ruwart taken. Mike Gravel? Now that would have excited me. I just like that guy, and I think he has a much better claim to being libertarian that Bob Barr, who voted for the PATRIOT Act oh so many years ago. And Wayne Allyn Root struck me as a first-class tool at the Reason event. So my LP enthusiasm meter remains, as always, pegged close to zero. But since I insist on expressively voting in presidential elections, finding nothing preferable on my ballot, I may well vote Libertarian, as is my habit.

Tim Lee is not enthused.

All Hail Carbon-Eating Trees!

Freeman Dyson's excellent review of William Nordhaus' excellent A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies in the New York Review of Books is a must-read. Here's the nut of Nordhaus' analysis:

The main conclusion of the Nordhaus analysis is that the ambitious proposals, “Stern” and “Gore,” are disastrously expensive, the “low-cost backstop” is enormously advantageous if it can be achieved, and the other policies including business-as-usual and Kyoto are only moderately worse than the optimal policy. The practical consequence for global-warming policy is that we should pursue the following objectives in order of priority. (1) Avoid the ambitious proposals. (2) Develop the science and technology for a low-cost backstop. (3) Negotiate an international treaty coming as close as possible to the optimal policy, in case the low-cost backstop fails. (4) Avoid an international treaty making the Kyoto Protocol policy permanent. These objectives are valid for economic reasons, independent of the scientific details of global warming.

This “low-cost backstop” sounds promising. Is it? Dyson thinks so:

At this point I return to the Keeling graph, which demonstrates the strong coupling between atmosphere and plants. The wiggles in the graph show us that every carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere is incorporated in a plant within a time of the order of twelve years. Therefore, if we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” as a low-cost backstop to global warming. The science and technology of genetic engineering are not yet ripe for large-scale use. We do not understand the language of the genome well enough to read and write it fluently. But the science is advancing rapidly, and the technology of reading and writing genomes is advancing even more rapidly. I consider it likely that we shall have “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp. Keeling's wiggles prove that a big fraction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes within the grasp of biotechnology every decade. If one quarter of the world's forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years.

How about bounties for carbon-eating tree technology?