The Two Languages of Libertarians

Daniel Klein classifies libertarians into challengers and bargainers. (He has a third category, “royalty,” to describe Milton Friedman and Adam Smith, who managed to achieve very high status.) Klein uses as an example of a topic the minimum wage. A challenger is someone who will say that the minimum wage should be abolished, while a bargainer is someone who sill say that the minimum wage should not be raised. Pointer from Tyler Cowen, who Klein pegs as a bargainer (I would agree).

Some comments:

1. I would describe challengers and bargainers in terms of language. Challengers use the language of certainty. “This is what I think, and people who disagree are just wrong.” Bargainers use the language of doubt or compromise. “Here is where my opponents and I agree, and here is where I think they are mistaken.”

2. I am mostly a bargainer. However, when I write posts using challenger language, I get a lot more praise and mention among libertarians. In fact, I have tried to keep myself from being influenced by such reinforcement.

3. You might be able to adapt these linguistic differences to other parts of the political spectrum. For example, I imagine that Paul Krugman evolved into the writer he is because he could not resist the positive reinforcement he received for expressing anger and certainty.

4. I think that Klein’s disctinction explains why I prefer having my own blog. I think it is fair to describe Bryan Caplan as more of a challenger, and when we were both at EconLog our styles clashed.*

5. Klein is never clear on whether the he is drawing an intellectual distinction between bargaining and challenging or whether he is making sociological observations. In fact, most of the talk strikes me as observations about differences between challengers and bargainers in terms of their personalities and social circumstances. For example, he says that the challengers tend to draw cult-like followings. On the other hand, he does say that an individual can make a choice about which stance to adopt, and it may even be possible to adopt different stances in different circumstances. That makes it sound more like an intellectual distinction. Bargainer that I am, I am trying to split the difference between making an intellectual distinction and making a sociological distinction, so that I want to emphasize linguistic differences.

6. I think that one difference, which can be viewed as intellectual but is probably grounded in personality, is that of certainty vs. doubt. The libertarians who Klein classifies as challengers strike me as highly certain. The bargainers have doubts. For example, challengers are quite certain that the world would be a better place with open borders, if drug laws were abolished, and so on. As a bargainer, I think that this is likely to be the case, but I am not so all-fired certain. Since challengers do not give much thought to being wrong, the fact that they are in a minority on an issue never bothers them. When I am in the minority, I question my own position–although I try to question my own position in any event.

7. In terms of what Jeffrey Friedman calls “the libertarian straddle,” challengers rely more on the philosophical a priori case for liberty. Think of Rothbard and the non-aggression principle. Bargainers rely more on the empirical economic case for liberty, which is that societies with more economic liberty tend to be more prosperous.

*This is all hindsight, in that I left EconLog primarily to pursue an ed-tech start-up. That did not go well, although I did learn a lot about how software had changed in the 15 years since I had been out of it.

The Supreme Court and the Text of the Law

According to a legal theory I am about to sketch, the Supreme Court would let stand the subsidies that are being paid to people through the Federal health care exchange, in spite of the language in the law that says only state exchanges are entitled to pass on subsidies. Instead, the Supreme Court would say that from a common-law perspective, the subsidies on the Federal exchange are what people have come to expect.

By a “common-law” perspective, I mean that the Supreme Court should pay little attention to written law or to the Constitution. Gasp!

In my amateurish libertarian legal theory, law should not come from legislation, or from Constitutions. It should represent the common understanding of what is legal. When a dispute arises, the role of the court is to resolve the dispute. The court exists not to interpret legislation or Constitutions. The court exists to resolve disputes peacefully.

If the court is unpredictable and arbitrary, then people will err on the side of bringing too many disputes to the court (or else they will ignore the court altogether, and it will not serve its purpose). Instead, a good court will resolve disputes fairly and predictably. Using precedent and clear principles makes for predictable decisions. With predictable decisions, people will not bring disputes unnecessarily to the court. When you can predict the outcome, there is no need to go to court.

In this world, law is embedded in precedent. There is no need for legislation. Hence, no need to interpret legislation. There can be legislators and legislation, but legislation is only binding if the court chooses to enforce it. If the court decides that legislation is contrary to common law, then the court can choose not to enforce the legislation.

What restrains the court in this world? If people stop agreeing to use the court to resolve disputes, then that limits its power.

By the way, this is a half-baked or quarter-baked theory of law. Comments welcome.

A Conflict of Rhetoric

Lawrence Mitchell writes,

A very significant component of success – one that may even be more determinative than hard work – is luck. This is true, even if the advantaged have worked hard to maximize the benefits of that luck. By luck, I mostly mean circumstances of birth and natural talents and abilities (which might well include the propensity to work hard).

Why do the disadvantaged tolerate this situation? The American myth of self-reliance. No matter the vagaries of fortune, we consistently find that Americans at all levels believe in some variant of the Horatio Alger myth – the classic American rags to riches success story – despite strong empirical evidence that belies it.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

On the other hand, James Otteson writes,

Human beings are capable of being worthy to be free. Human beings become noble, and, I would even suggest, beautiful, by the vigorous use of their faculties and they become dignified when their lives are their own…

This conception of moral agency allows one to be one’s own person, and to stand, or fall, on one’s own individual initiative, without having to beg for personal favors, without having to grovel at the knees of a king or flatter a lord or satisfy the pleasure of the Regulatory Czar. It grants people the freedom to go where their own abilities and initiative–not someone else’s mercy or condescension–can take them. Yet with that freedom comes responsibility for one’s actions. If you succeed, then you reap the benefits–and no one begrudges you your success because it means you have done well both for yourself and for others. If you fail, however, then you may pay the cost and (one hopes) learn from the experience.

…Contrary to widespread opinion, failure is not something that public policy should attempt to eliminate…failure, and experiencing the consequences attendant on having made decisions that led to failure, is an indispensible [sic] part of moral agency.

Those quotes are from Otteson’s recent book, The End of Socialism.

My sense is that these two authors talk past one another. Otteson’s rhetoric emphasizes personal decisions as the determinant of individual success. For Mitchell, it is the opposite–even a “propensity to work hard” is a matter of luck.

I find myself unwilling to accept either extreme. I am inclined to think that Otteson makes the scope of individual moral agency seem too large, and Mitchell makes that scope seem too small. However, I have yet to finish Otteson’s book or to start Mitchell’s.

Coincidentally, Charles Murray writes,

deeper personal qualities account for what we call political polarization, but that one specific dimension—our respective attitudes toward personal responsibility—accounts for a huge proportion of the polarization all by itself.

Read the whole piece.

James Otteson on Socialism

In a Russ Roberts podcast, Otteson says,

So, who is making the relevant economic decisions? Is it a third party, a person, group, agency who is making it on behalf of others? That’s what I’m calling the impulse toward centralism. Or, is it principally individuals or communities, localized communities, themselves? That’s what I’m calling decentralized decision making. And that is a spectrum.

This ties in to what I call the FOOL theor, meaning Fear of Others’ Liberty. Chances are, few people want to cede their own decision-making to a third party. But many of us think that others’ decisions are bad for them or for society as a whole, and we want a third party to make those decisions instead.

Incidentally, I have started reading Otteson’s book.

The Greater FOOL Theory

Peter Wood writes,

The passivity of this cohort when faced with a hard core challenge by those intent on replacing liberal education with illiberal social control is, in that sense, a troubling mystery. One way to resolve it is to conclude that the “libertarian moment” in higher education is mostly an illusion. Is it possible that the small “l” libertarians are themselves not really libertarian at all? Could they be simply the crowd that follows where the progressives lead?

Read the whole essay to get the context.

One of my still-gestating essays concerns what I call FOOL, the Fear of Others’ Liberty. My theory is that the desire for government, or more generally for “illiberal social control,” comes from the tendency of people to fear what others will do with their liberty. You are willing to see liberty stifled, especially when you think it will be others’ liberty that will be stifled much more than your own. I am inclined to think that FOOL explains a lot.

Tyler Cowen, Neocon

He writes,

Without the current and past American security umbrella, for instance, I believe much of Asia would be a far less free place than it is today, starting but not ending with Taiwan and South Korea.

I give Tyler credit for raising this issue in a forum least likely to be sympathetic to it. This is Brink Lindsey’s growth forum hosted by Cato, where Brink is inviting contributions from the liberaltarian crowd.

I have to say that when looking at places like Russia, Hungary, or the Middle East, my appreciation for the civilization vs. barbarism axis tends to increase. On my list of books to sample (not necessarily read the whole thing) is Bret Stephens’ latest, where he argues that the U.S. should act as the world’s policeman. I wonder whether he explains how the U.S. could do that without also becoming the world’s social worker.

UPDATE: Here is how Stephens starts out:

Where do you fall on the spectrum between internationalists and neoisolationists? Ask yourself the following questions:

Does the United States have a vital interest in the outcome of the civil war in Syria, or in Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, or in Saudi Arabia’s contest with Iran?

Should Americans take sides between China and Japan over which of them exercises sovereignty over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands? Similarly, should we care whether Ukraine or Russia controls Crimea?

Is America more secure or less secure for deploying military forces in hot spots such as the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea?

My views on these issues are mixed. On the Middle East, I see the Syrian civil war as barbarism vs. barbarism. Similarly, the contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran. On Israel and the Palestinians, I understand that many people explain the Palestianians’ barbaric behavior as being caused by oppression, but I see it more the other way around. They could end oppression by being less barbaric. And I believe that the U.S. ought to support civilization in that contest.

On the second issue, my memories of the Vietnam era are salient enough to make me wary of pushing conflict on the basis of domino theory. Uninhabited islands strike me as dominoes that can be allowed to fall. Note that Stephens in effect equates Crimea to uninhabited islands, which suggests that it, too, is a domino that should be allowed to fall. I do not think that caving in there means that next thing you know Putin will be at the gates of Paris.

I think we are more secure for deploying military forces in the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea. If you press me, I will tell you that I believe that the U.S. navy and air support are the true world government, and without world government we would have major war.

If you think that pacifism and non-interventionism are ways of preventing major war, you have company. But my concern is that those policies only work if there is someone else doing the work of the world’s policeman. Being Swiss seems fine now, but if the U.S. had not intervened in World War II, it might not have been so peachy. And ultimately not so peachy for the U.S., either.

UPDATE: I wrote the foregoing before yesterday’s massacre in Jerusalem. If I have my geography right, the attack took place far inside the 1967 borders. It is an area where young observant American Jews go to study. The sight of Palestinians celebrating cold-blooded murder is something that I cannot put out of my mind. Even the Germans did not celebrate when they murdered Jews.

George Smith on Herbert Spencer, continued

I recommend the series of essays by Smith, called From Optimism to Pessimism.

According to Spencer, most people are too ignorant to understand the detrimental long-term consequences of government intervention, so they will continue to embrace the superstition that a government can accomplish virtually anything, given the requisite political will and despite one failure after another. Experience counts for nothing here, because to understand the abstract nature of political institutions and their causal effects on social and economic interaction requires a level of conceptual ability that exceeds the intellectual powers of most people.

That quote is from Part 5 of the series. Another quote:

Spencer even criticized American democracy, because many Americans believed that “smart people” in government can do whatever they set out to do. Spencer, who was blunt if he was anything, was not reluctant to use words like “stupidity” when describing these and similar beliefs.

Herbert Spencer on Exit and Voice

In 1850 or 1851, he wrote,

If every man has equal freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection with the state–to relinquish its protection, and to refuse to pay toward its support…

Let men learn that a legislature is not “our God upon earth,” though, by the authority they ascribe to it , and the things they expect from it, they would seem to think it is.

These are selections from chapter 19 of Social Statics, reprinted in a new volume of readings from the Adam Smith Society, edited by James R. Otteson. The title of the volume is What Adam Smith Knew: Moral Lessons on Capitalism from Its Greatest Champions and Fiercest Opponents. This looks like an excellent collection of readings for a course in social and political philosophy.

What strikes me about Spencer’s chapter is how clearly he makes the case that exit is more legitimate than voice.

I think that my counter to Spencer would be this:

1. In modern society, we must interact, both directly and indirectly, with many strangers.

2. If we had competitive government, in which each person could choose which set of rules to obey, the cost of interacting with strangers might increase. When you sell me food, how do I know that you submit to a quality-assurance regime that gives me confidence that you are not cheating or poisoning me? Today, I can assume that the simple fact that you live in the United States makes you automatically subject to its rules. With competitive government, I would need some sort of signal.

3. As we expand the list of interactions, the signaling costs may mount up.

I do not think that this signaling-cost story is sufficient to explain and to justify the existence of government. I do not think that government emerged because people got together and said, “Sigh. Yes, government is a really problematic institution, but without it we would have to waste a lot of resources on signaling that we are going to treat strangers decently.”

I do think that there is something to a Hansonian view that we tend to want to affiliate with high-status people, and that certainly includes people with power. And I think that this view accounts for a lot of the support that the state receives. Spencer strikes me as anticipating this view, or coming close to anticipating it, for he complains of

that sentiment of power-worship which still misleads us by magnifying the prerogatives of constitutional governments as it once did those monarchs.

George H. Smith gives a quite different Spencer. In a footnote, Smith writes,

he insists, in Social Statics (1850), that ethics, including the Law of Equal Freedom, applies only to the “ideal man,” i.e., to a future society populated by people with highly evolved moral sentiments.

Pointer from Alberto Mingardi, who himself has written a book on Spencer.

In another essay, Smith writes,

When this remarkable man moved from an early optimism (during the 1840s and 50s) to an extreme pessimism (beginning roughly in the 1880s) about the prospects for individual liberty, when he predicted the rise of militarism and total war in the twentieth century and the political centralization and regimentation that such militarism would bring in its wake, he let it be known that classical liberalism was dead for the foreseeable future. And he was right.

Public Officials and Cameras

I first advanced the idea on this blog, and I have now elaborated on it.

Perhaps the best approach to this issue would be an experimental one. Agree on criteria for measuring the quality of decision-making processes. Randomly assign some government agencies and some local governments to two different groups, one that wears cameras and one that does not. Then observe how policies evolve among the two groups over a period of five years or so, using the criteria for assessment. I am sure that neither group’s policy process will be perfect. However, I think that there is good chance that the transparent group will earn a better grade.

Note that, once again, my views turn out to be those of someone from the Bipartisan Policy Center, with a minus sign.