Thick Libertarianism and the Federation of Liberty

Excellent post from Micha Ghertner:

Thick libertarianism is that much more important when you adopt a “Federation of Liberty” over a “Union of Liberty” approach, to use Kukathas' language, or when you adopt a pluralist over a rationalist approach, to use Levy's. The only way to convince other cultures that liberty is worth preserving is by engaging them in that argument, and rooting out those aspects of their culture that are inimical to freedom. Removing benevolent imperialism from the libertarian tool-kit makes the tool of peaceful but critical persuasion all the more necessary.

Micha also makes this great point… One can admit that a social practice is unjustly liberty-limiting and be opposed to coercive intervention in exactly the same way that one can admit that a state violates the rights of its people and be opposed to coercive intervention.

Utopia Tennis

The conversation on corporatism and free(d) markets at Cato Unbound continues to be fascinating. I do have to say I found this bit of Rod Long's reply to Yglesias a little peculiar.

The chief question at issue between Matthew Yglesias and myself is how best to remedy this situation. There would seem to be three possible options:

1. Either abolish or radically diminish the power of the state.

2. Keep the state as it is but demand that it remain neutral and noninterventionist.

3. Use the state actively as a tool against corporate power.

Yglesias seems to think that the libertarian solution is (2), which he rejects as unrealistic. The “concept of a state apparatus that simply sits on the sideline watching the free market roll along” is “impossibly utopian,” Yglesias argues, because people will inevitably “try to manipulate the state to advance their own ends.” Hence Yglesias favors (3) instead.

But of course the libertarian—or at least the radical libertarian—agrees with Yglesias that a passive bystander state is utopian, and so favors (1) rather than (2). But for the libertarian, (3) is impossibly utopian as well; the incentival and informational perversities that beset the state are inherent in its monopolistic nature, so that the hope of achieving benign outcomes via the state is a chimera. (1) may be difficult to achieve given the prevailing political climate, but unlike (2) and (3) it poses—or so we libertarians claim—no inherent, ineradicable tendency to instability, and so is the least utopian option of the three.

I favor something between (1) and (2). I say “something between” because the diminution of power I have in mind probably isn't “radical” in Rod's book. But, unlike (1), (1.5) I think it quite feasible. It's feasible because (2) is. The argument that (2) is feasible is that successful liberal democracies are already relatively limited, neutral and noninterventionist. Theirs are by no means Rod's “freed” markets, but they are also a very long way from maximally unfree markets. Indeed, some of the most successful existing societies such as Denmark, Ausralia, and New Zealand have come a long way over the past several decades in a freer market direction. We have an existence proof of the possibility of doing better. Rod's case seems to be based on the claim that “achieving benign outcomes via the state is a chimera,” but this seems obviously false. Many states evidently succeed in achieving relatively benign outcomes. Further, the claim that (1) has “no inherent, ineradicable rendency to instability” strikes me as completely conjectural. If (2) is unstable because people will demand state interference in the economy given a state, then (1) is unstable because people tend to demand states. Perhaps Rod has some account of how we get from here to (1), and an account of how (1) tends to generate it's own popular support, such that demand for a larger state does will not tend to reemerge. But until I see that account, the claim that (1) is especially non-Utopian strikes me as weird. 

Complementarity and Contingency

Tyler Cowen's post on Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers is fascinating. 

The main point, in economic language, is that human talent is heterogeneous and that the talent of a particular person must mesh with the capital structure of his or her time if major success is to result.


It is too easy to find contingency in the world and Gladwell doesn't begin to look for a theory of which contingencies are interesting or not.


Gladwell descends into the swamp of contingency but he is unwilling to really live in it and take it seriously or, alternatively, to find a way out. 

In reality the complementarity concept is easier to work with and also more fruitful for thinking about policy implications or for that matter the implications for management or talent training.  Success is fragile but foster competing cultures based on clusters of talent motivated by rivalry and emulation.  Don't filter out the eccentrics or the risk takers.  That's about where David Hume ended up but Gladwell never gets anywhere close.

I agree with Tyler, especially that Hume is teh awesome, but I'd like to emphasize the contingency of complementarity. Tomorrow's capital structure may be too different from today's to attempt to cultivate in young people the talents that will mesh with it. Who knows what those will be? As the pace of innovation continues to accelerate, this will be an ever bigger issue. For example, nobody I knew had heard of the Internet when I was in high school. But I spent a huge amount of my time in college talking to people on the Internet. Without it, I'd probably be a high school art teacher today. With it, I'm doing everything I'm doing instead. All my best opportunities came from meeting people in online discussion groups and having a blog. That's weird!

Homelessness Exit Strategies

Today I'm part of a strange “Freakonomics Quorum” on what you'd do if you suddenly found yourself penniless and on the streets. This sounds like an interesting hypothetical. But, as I discovered as I tried to honestly imagine what I would do, it was a struggle to keep it interesting. Here's the official scenario:

Imagine you just lost all your possessions and money, and you were suddenly living in the streets.

1. What’s the first move you would make?

2. What’s the first organization you would turn to?

3. What would your extended plan look like?

Here's my answer to the first question:

1. What’s the first move you would make?

I’m going to assume I’ve got amnesia or am doggedly prideful so that this isn’t too easy, or too boring. So “call my friends and family” is out.

But even if my entire social network — my entire fund of “social capital” — is wiped out by some freak virus, it’s still too easy. I can lose a wallet, but I can’t lose the balance of my good fortune. I’m a Midwestern white guy with good manners and an excess of education. That is, I’m rich in human and cultural capital, and that gives me a safety net too few people have. Even if my one set of clothes was funky and filthy, it would be easy enough for a guy like me to approach strangers and get them to trust me. So that’s what I’d do; I’d politely ask sympathetic-looking strangers for some help, and I’d get it. That’s privilege.

The rest of my answers are here, along with the answers of Nick MillsJosh PivenAdam Shepard, and Ann Wroe. Wroe, the obit editor at The Economist, offers an answer that is… pretty amazing. Here's how she starts:

Assuming I hadn’t lost my wits (a big assumption), my first move would be to walk away from those streets, towards the sea or towards the woods. It’s easier to be empty there. The leaves or the waves would soothe me, as they always do, and I would try to reconcile myself to being stripped down to the essentials. The death-in-life could become rebirth, if I was strong enough. 

The libertarian policy analyst talks about various forms of capital. The obit editor talks about the woods and the sea and “death-in-life.” Makes sense!  

Politics in the Era of Marketing

Here's how to think about American party politics, from IOZ:

To believe [that evangelicals are what ails the GOP coalition], you have to conceptualize the Democrats as being historically something like the party of labor interests, the Republicans as being historically something like the party of business interests, and the crazy minority ID-politics types and the oogedy-boogedy faith-healing millenarian types being respectively the infestations that ruined them. Whereas in reality you have two corporate imperialist factions who differ on how best to keep hoi polloi in line, with the Democrats dangling the carrot of redistributive economic justice and the Republicans offering the illusion of social and moral harmony. Republicans never actually deliver a fag-free, abortionless, desexualized, post-Hollywood culture, and Democrats never do much for the downtrodden, but we live in an era of marketing, whatever, forever and ever, shantih, amen. 


We Don't Need No Stinkin' Czars

Such is the theme of this morning's Marketplace commentary.

The beginning of my concluding paragraph was cut, which is too bad since I thought it was the most important part. It originally ended like this:

More importantly, a czarstruck public becomes all-too-willing to think that without a Hunger Czar, bellies will go unfilled, that without an Office of Homeland Happiness, there will be no mirth in the land. But government is not our source of sustenance and happiness. And Czars are more often than not a cosmetic response to problems government policy itself has created. Politicians promise much, but government too rarely delivers. In the end, it is the innovation and enterprise of private citizens, not a swarm of pint-sized Caesars, that delivers the goods.

Billboard for the People

If you would like to chip in to support public art in celebration of the future Commander in Chief of the world's most powerful killing operation, here's your chance.

Yes, yes I know…. It's wonderful that an African American is going to have this kind of status and power. It really is. But, at the same time, there is zero reason to celebrate that the head of the executive branch of the U.S. Government is in fact a position of such exalted status, or to lose our democratic antipathy to massively concentrated power. The status of the President should be denigrated and the power of the office fiercely contested.  

If this billboard happens, I pledge $10 to the guerilla mustache project. 

You can purchase Gene Healy's outstanding Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power here


Dean Baker on Libertarians and the Fight Against Corporatism

In yesterday's Cato Unbound lefty economist Dean Baker sees the possibility for common ground between libertarians and progressive in fighting corporatism, but doesn't yet see libertarians making good on their part of the deal. While making largely sensible case against the status quo system of patents and copyrights, Baker writes:

The extraordinary abuses that we see every day as a result of patent protection for prescription drugs and copyright protection should be sending libertarians through the roof, and perhaps it does. But, where are the libertarians’ research programs on alternatives to patents for financing drug research or alternatives to copyrights for financing creative and artistic work? (I couldn’t find either program on Cato’s website.)

I’m not raising these issues as debating points. I absolutely believe that copyrights and patent monopolies for prescription drugs are extremely pernicious forms of government intervention into the market. I can’t understand why any serious libertarian would not be as bothered as I am.

Well, I am as bothered as Baker is. And over at Cato@Liberty, Tim Lee brings Baker up to date on some of his and Cato's work on IP. Tim has a few disagreements with Baker about the best government framework for encouraging innovation, but the extent of overall agreement really is pretty impressive, and promising.