Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thesis, Anti-Thesis, Synthesis: Kuehn and Wonacott on Higgs and Tautological Libertarianism

...(this is the synthesis)

A couple days ago Ed Glaeser said the moral center of gravity of economics was human liberty. Probably a more scientific way of putting it (because I like to think of economics as a science) is that the central message of economics is that free humans make for an efficient society. Either way - a wonderful sentiment, and I said as much.

In response (to Glaeser, not me) Robert Higgs suggested that Glaeser was tying himself up in knots. The state and liberty are anti-thetical. I was not amused. I accused Higgs of philosophical elginism - robbing a rich classical liberal tradition advocating human liberty to support his own ideological ends. Samuel Wonacott was not amused. We went back and forth for a while (my obstinancy probably dragging it out longer than necessary), and I think I've come to a better way of putting my frustration with Higgs:

Perhaps I overstated my case with Higgs because I really don't know him well enough to say where he's coming from. Let me say this at least - he comes across as being an ideologue. He clearly thinks there is an inherent opposition between liberty and government. That establishes that he and I are in disagreement - but disagreement is OK. However, he states it as if its just a self-evident fact. That's a clue-in for ideology.

Then he says this, which was the real clincher for me: "To be sure, many mainstream economists do think about policy just as Glaeser says they do. But in doing so, they are mistaken. I find it difficult to believe that a man of Glaeser’s intelligence has really given much thought to what he is saying in these passages."

I don't think I could ever say such a thing to, for example, Nozick or Hayek - or to thoughtful anarchist thinkers (even though I disagree with their conclusions every bit as much as I disagree with Higgs's). The arrogance of that statement suggests to me he's coming from a more ideological than a genuinely philosophical foundation.

The claim that the state and liberty are anti-thetical may be right or it may be wrong. But if it is right it is not tautologically right. Too many libertarians treat it as if it were tautologically right.

This isn't an exclusive failing of libertarians, I hope it goes without saying. It's a failing of lots of people. But I'm not blogging about lot's of people in this case - I'm blogging about libertarians.

I hope this is clearer - I think it does better expressing my initial frustration.


  1. There is an inherent opposition or tension between liberty and any corporate body - government, church, etc.

  2. A lot of this depends on where you stand though I suppose - for a great number of people the state is merely a kleptocratic organization, others are able to leverage benefits from it.

  3. Gary - at this point we just disagree. If you question whether I've given much thought to it because I disagree with you, and without providing actual reasons for saying what you say yourself, then I will start to not be amused again :)

  4. Well, whether one sees benefits from the state seems like a subjective position IMHO; and that is the primary problem with the state - it is the last refuge of corporate monopoly. Not that I am pointing out anything new here - I'm echoing Lysander Spooner in some ways.

  5. And here I thought economists were all about subjective value.

  6. Gary, I don't think illustrating Daniel's point is going to successfully refute it.

  7. Daniel, I think it should be clear that any attempt to discover whether the state is a boon or a curse to human liberty must be solved by reason and dialectic alone; experience can teach us nothing of the matter for many reasons (people benefit disproportionately from the state, subjective theory of value, no interpersonal utility comparison, etc.) If this is true, then if the libertarians are correct, it would be tautologically true because reason is a method of drawing conclusions from axioms - it is not a process of divining new knowledge. It is analytic and thus a tautology. Refer to the bachelor example I beat to death how many months ago.

  8. Mattheus -
    I'm not sure I agree it must be solved by reason and dialectic alone. I'm not sure it can be "solved". But then again, I've been in a fairly skeptical mood lately.

    Perhaps "axiomatic" is a better term for what it woudl not be (but what many treat it as) rather than "tautological". Many libertarians treat it as axiomatic, which I hope even you would agree with me is wrong.


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