Monday, January 16, 2012

Jeff Sachs has a great article on libertarianism

Here. I think it presents a good explanation for people who may be unfamiliar with it, and an excellent treatment of the problems with libertarianism. He also provides a great review of deontological vs. consequentialist perspectives that is accessible to people who don't know much about this. And finally he presents differences and nuances in the thought of people like Nozick and Hayek.

A lot of people are in the habit of screaming bloody murder when their outlook is not represented exactly how they would like it to be represented by a critical writer in the press I understand that - I do that too. But I think Sachs avoids these criticisms. Yes, he doesn't agree with libertarianism but he does an excellent job presenting it here. I would love to see a libertarian explain an American (i.e. constitutional and federalist) centrist, pragmatic Keynesianism like this. I have yet to see one do as good a job.


  1. The article is incredibly biased. He categorically rejects the straw men he builds as soon as he builds them. For instance, when he talks about economic libertarianism, he immediately follows up with: "Yet economic theory dating back to Adam Smith and up to Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman has explained why society should turn to government when the conditions of market competition do not apply." What about public choice theory which tells us unambiguously that maybe turning to the government will make things worst?

    I also love the way he can point out that Hayek and Friedman both supported some basic income for all as an argument against economic libertarianism while only a few paragraphs earlier affirming that libertarians would say that if rich people don't want to help poor people, the government should let the poor people die. That sounds dishonest to me.

    And then there is this: "Even today, Paul opposes the civil rights legislation of the 1960s on the ground that society has no right to deny the "liberty" of racist behavior. Even if Ron Paul himself is no racist, he gives comfort to racists."

    Libertarians often believe that racist business practices impose a higher cost on the business and that non-racists will therefore out-compete the racist businesses. That for many libertarians is a non-trivial part of why they oppose civil rights legislation. To miss that point is to miss a pretty important point.

    Honestly, the article is terrible. It's as if I stated that the policy recommendation of centrist Keynesians is that we should go to war or dig holes and re-fill them as a way of boosting the economy. Perhaps it's not entirely wrong, but it's also not a very honest representation of centrist Keynesians.

  2. I thought it was pretty bad too. Sachs writes as if it has never occurred to a libertarian thinker that there are values other than liberty, which is preposterous. If this is the benchmark for approaching someone else's ideological positions well, Daniel, it is set quite low.

  3. PrometheeFeu -
    re: "What about public choice theory which tells us unambiguously that maybe turning to the government will make things worst?"

    Riiiight... you can make these observations and recognize government can make things worse without being a libertarian. Economists have recognized what public choice theory formalized for centuries.

    Daniel -
    re: "Sachs writes as if it has never occurred to a libertarian thinker that there are values other than liberty, which is preposterous."

    If the difference between libertarians and others in the classical liberal tradition is not this point that libertarians emphasize this single classical liberal value, often to the exclusion of others, then what would you say the difference is? You say it's "terrible" but how else would you put it. If someone were to task me with identifying what makes libertarianism unique in the liberal tradition, and to reflect on the variation within libertarianism, I'm honestly not sure what other answer there is. You note that libertarians give primacy to liberty over other liberal values, and you note a few differences between deontological and consequentialist libertarians.

    What other answer is there, Daniel?

  4. Daniel,

    I'm not sure I disagree with your point above, although it is not related to my original comment (in which I never use the word "terrible," by the way). I was noting how Jeffrey Sachs writes as if libertarians themselves have never thought about the fact that there are values other than liberty - of course they have. Libertarianism is not the same thing as naiveté. And that is why I think that his piece is far less than an excellent treatment of the problems of libertarianism.


  5. Summarizing ideologies is like summarizing Proust, Monty Python should have done a sketch about it.

  6. @Daniel Kuehn:

    Public choice theory doesn't imply libertarianism but it does make short work of the argument that economic theory shows that "society should turn to government when the conditions of market competition do not apply." Economic theory shows that when market competition doesn't apply, efficiency could be improved if certain policies were adopted but political processes in many cases are unlikely to yield those desired policies. In other words, the article omits a crucial point that is an important part of modern libertarian discourse. Maybe I'm too cynical, but it seems to me the article's author was glad to omit something that didn't support his view. Reasonable people can disagree on libertarianism, but the article in question is not particularly honest.

  7. I think you're being cynical, PrometheeFeu.

    Jeff Sachs is abundantly aware of the fact that political processes in many cases are unlikely to yield their desired results.

    I wonder at what point in my career this faux case against more mainstream economists, relying on the assumption of their complete obtuseness, will die.

    1. I didn't know who Jeff Sachs was. (I'm terrible with names) I don't doubt that he knows all about public choice theory. But my point was not that he didn't know. My point was that he presented the existence of market failures as proof that economics disavows libertarianism while the theory of public choice and the possibility of coasian bargains are strong arguments in favor of libertarianism that emerge from economic theory. I find it to be a dishonest tactic. There are plenty of honest, competent, open-minded mainstream economists out there. But the article in question is a dishonest attack on libertarianism, not a fair explanation of the arguments for and against libertarianism.


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