Libertarian Varieties

Here at GMU Econ we tend to lean libertarian, but in a wide range of ways. For example, here are two recent posts by colleagues:

Don Boudreaux:

The economy is an emergent and dynamic order that was not, and could not possibly be, designed – and, hence, that cannot possibly be successfully engineered. … the economy is not a device or an organization with a purpose. It is, instead, the result of the multitude of interactions of hundreds of millions of diverse individual entities – persons, households, firms, and governments – each pursuing its own purposes. …

Competent intro-economics professors keep their aspirations modest. In my case, these are two. The first is to impress upon my students the full weight of the fact that the economy is an inconceivably complex order of interactions that cannot possibly be engineered. The second is to inspire students always to ask questions that too often go unasked – questions such as “From where will the resources come to provide that service?” “Why should Sam’s assessment of Sally’s choices be regarded more highly than Sally’s own assessment?” “What consequences beyond the obvious ones might result from that government action?” And, most importantly of all, “As compared to what?”

Students who successfully complete any well-taught economics course do not have their egos inflated with delusions that they can advise Leviathan to engineer improvements in society. Quite the opposite. But these students do emerge with the too-rare humility that marks those who understand that the best service they can offer is to ask penetrating and pertinent questions that are asked by almost no others. (more)

I’m a big fan of learning to ask good questions; it is great to be able to see puzzles, and to resist the temptation to explain them away too quickly. However, I’m less enamored of teaching people to “ask questions” when they are supposed to see certain answers as obvious.

And the fact that a system is complex doesn’t imply that one cannot usefully “engineer” connections to it. For example, the human body is complex, and yet we can usefully engineer our diets, views, clothes, furniture, air input/outputs, sanitation, and medical interventions.

Yes, most students are overly prone to endorse simple-minded policies with large side effects that they do not understand. But I attribute this less to a lack of awareness of complexity, and more to an eagerness to show values; they care less about the effects of polices than about the values they signal by supporting them. After all, people are also prone to offer overly simple-minded advise to the individual people around them, for similar reasons.

Dan Klein:

Government is a special sort of player in society; its initiations of coercion differ from those of criminals. Its coercions are overt, institutionalized, openly rationalized, even supported by a large portion of the public. They are called intervention or restriction or regulation or taxation, rather than extortion, assault, theft, or trespass. But such government interventions are still initiations of coercion. That’s important, because recognizing it helps to sustain a presumption against them, a presumption of liberty. CLs [= classical liberals] and libertarians think that many extant interventions do not, in fact, meet the burden of proof for overcoming the presumption. Many interventions should be rolled back, repealed, abolished.

Thus CLs and libertarians favor liberalizing social affairs. That goes as general presumption: For business, work, and trade, but also for guns and for “social” issues, such as drugs, sex, speech, and voluntary association.

CLs and libertarians favor smaller government. Government operations, such as schools, rely on taxes or privileges (and sometimes partially user fees). Even apart from the coercive nature of taxation, they don’t like the government’s playing such a large role in social affairs, for its unhealthy moral and cultural effects.

There are some libertarians, however, who have never seen an intervention that meets the burden of proof. They can be categorical in a way that CLs are not, believing in liberty as a sort of moral axiom. Sometimes libertarians ponder a pure-liberty destination. They can seem millenarian, radical, and rationalistic. …
But libertarian has also been used to describe a more pragmatic attitude situated in the status quo yet looking to liberalize, a directional tendency to augment liberty, even if reforms are small or moderate. (more)

Along with Dan, I only lean against government intervention; that presumption can be and is often overcome. But the concept of coercion isn’t very central to my presumption. At a basic level, I embrace the usual economists’ market failure analysis, preferring interventions that fix large market failures, relative to obvious to-be-expected government failures.

But at a meta level, I care more about having good feedback/learning/innovation processes. The main reason that I tend to be wary of government intervention is that it more often creates processes with low levels of adaptation and innovation regarding technology and individual preferences. Yes, in principle dissatisfied voters can elect politicians who promise particular reforms. But voters have quite limited spotlights of attention and must navigate long chains of accountability to detect and induce real lasting gains.

Yes, low-government mechanisms often also have big problems with adaptation and innovation, especially when customers mainly care about signaling things like loyalty, conformity, wealth, etc. Even so, the track record I see, at least for now, is that these failures have been less severe than comparable government failures. In this case, the devil we know more does in fact tend to be better that the devil we know less.

So when I try to design better social institutions, and to support the proposals of others, I’m less focused than many on assuring zero government invention, or on minimizing “coercion” however conceived, and more concerned to ensure healthy competition overall.

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