Yuval Levin on Scientism and Skepticism

He writes,

But understanding human limitations does not mean we can overcome them. It only means we can’t pretend they don’t exist. It should point us toward humility, not hubris. And in politics and policy, understanding the limitation that Klein highlights should point us away from technocratic overconfidence and toward an idea of a government that enables society to address its problems through incremental, local, trial-and-error learning processes rather than centrally managed wholesale transformations of large systems.

I suggest reading the whole thing. I could have picked about any paragraph at random to excerpt.

Ignorance, Exit, and Voice

In this essay, I suggest that even if voters were knowledgeable about issues, our democratic process would still not be as desirable as having the exit option. This is in the context of talking about a recent book by Ilya Somin. In my view, an even more frustrating problem than voter ignorance is the enchantment that many people have with democratically elected leaders.

As I see it, reasonable government, including the protection of liberty, requires those in office to follow norms of behavior that are bound by Constitutional constraints and principles of limited government. The problem with democratic enchantment is that it sanctions whatever majority-elected political leaders can get away with.

Kevin Williamson on Democracy

He writes,

[Rand] Paul’s challenge is to seek a smaller state while not advocating cuts to anything anybody’s grandmother cares about, to sell a live-and-let-live social policy to busybodies and bluenoses on both sides and to articulate a foreign policy that is less reliant on the projection of national strength without projecting weakness instead. Trouble is, he has to do all that to the satisfaction of an electorate whose members mostly think that a libertarian is somebody who works in a library, courting the debased descendants of Patrick Henry as they shout with one voice: “Give me liberty, or give me a check!”

In 2016, they’re going to vote for the check.

His argument is that when it comes to how they actually cast their votes, the American electorate is opposed to libertarians. If he is right, and I tend to think he is, then the feeling is mutual.

I remember in the 1960s, the opponents of the Vietnam war were divided between those who wanted to work within the system to change policy and those who believed that your best bet was to stay outside the system (“tune in, turn on, drop out”). The folks who took the latter approach started communes. Now, years later, I see libertarians facing the same question. The modern equivalent of communes would be seasteads.

The State, the Clan, and Liberty

At Cato Unbound,

Mark S. Weiner argues that, while the state does often destroy individual liberty, an even greater danger lies in the rule of the clan. Clan-based societies have been found throughout the world, in many different times and places. In general they have been highly resilient, successful at replicating themselves – and markedly illiberal. Individual freedom may need a strong central state after all, one that can provide the rule of law, enforce contracts, and suppress clan-based feuds and prejudices. Without the state, we may find ourselves regressing from an egalitarian society of contract to a hierarchical society of status….

Arnold Kling argues that human beings require institutions to interact on the basis of trust and cooperation. Kling argues that the resurgence of the clan is possible but unlikely in Anglo-American societies because the nuclear family rather than the clan is our distinctive form of non-state order. Kling concludes that the natural individualism fostered by the nuclear family makes prospects bright for shrinking the state without the risks of clannism. He calls on libertarians to advocate institutions that would accomplish this task.

Feel free to follow the link and read these essays, as well as others that will be posted on the topic.

What is to be Done?

My reader was not satisfied with the answer I offered in Libertarians and Politics. Here are a few more thoughts.

1. For economic libertarians who do seek to engage in politics, I do not think that the current environment is conducive to success. I use the modifier “economic,” because the same dominant progressive ideology that stifles economic libertarianism is quite friendly to libertarian positions on many social issues.

2. Perhaps one way to change the environment is to engage in political action and failing. The old Goldwater-made-Reagan-Possible theory. I am not terribly sold on that one.

3. I think that public schools are a major problem. Whether you think they make a difference at the margin in terms of student learning (I am skeptical), they probably are somewhat effective at progressive brainwashing. If you don’t believe that, consider what an uphill battle one faces trying to explain the beneficial effects of the capitalist system on reducing poverty, conserving natural resources, and so on.

4. The strong component of progressivism in the identity of intellectuals is another major problem. In order to feel welcome among highly-educated people, you have to affirm belief in ideas that are at best dubious and at worst just flat-out wrong. It takes too much courage these days to question progressive dogma in certain segments of the population, including non-Orthodox Jews

The Establishment View of Higher Education

Suzanne Mettler writes,

Tougher regulations of the for-profits, long overdue, are the quickest way to help the poorest Americans who seek college degrees. States, too, should be held accountable; a perverse incentive permits them to gain more in federal student aid if they commit less of their own resources to helping poorer students. Nonprofit schools must also be responsible partners with government in furthering opportunity. Lawmakers should curtail the money we spend on tuition tax policies and for-profits, and invest more in Pell grants and community colleges.

She views the problem in higher education as one of distribution. In Three Languages of Politics terms, she implies that for-profit schools and conservative politicians are the oppressors, and lower-income youth are the oppressed.

My own view is that we are sending many students to college who are not prepared for the traditional liberal-arts college. From a public policy perspective, this is banging your head against the wall. I would not defend current policy in higher education, but I think that investing more in Pell grants and community colleges would not lead to different results.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

Libertarians and Politics

A reader asks,

Don’t libertarians tend to be teenagers (of any age) who want to remain “pure” and righteous and above it all? Don’t libertarians therefore foster a culture of impotence and failure?

The issue is whether or not libertarians should engage in politics. Those of us on the libertarian side of things are inclined to see the political process as a poor way to arrive at decisions. So there is a case for trying to escape from that process and instead focus on work and family. However, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.

One approach would be for libertarians to focus more on the level of overall theory and principles, rather than on specific policies or candidates. Your goal is to try to convince those around you of the advantages of individual choice over collective politics. I am not sure that this approach overcomes the reader’s concern. I am not sure that the reader’s concern can in fact be addressed successfully.