Monday, June 18, 2012

Just a question

Why aren't there more advocates of libertarian dictatorships?

I value democracy as an actually effective (although by no means perfect) allocative and restraining mechanism.

In other words, I definitely think there are good arguments for public provision of certain goods and services and I think democracy can actually make social choices not entirely awfully. I also think the threat of being voted out is an important restraint on government. So I'm actually a democrat - it's not just something that "feels right" to me.

But there are two wrinkles here: (1.) as an economist I can't help but think that if Congress were full of unelected economists they'd probably make better decisions on certain policies than they currently do - so I understand the technocratic appeal, and (2.) libertarians regularly dispute my claims about the allocative abilities and the restraints offered by democracy. In fact they are my most strident critics on these points.

And yet they also seem to want you to think they don't like tyranny and dictatorship. I can understand why they would claim not to like fascism (Mises's Liberalism excluded, of course), since that actually involves central planning. But you would think we would have a lot more advocates of libertarian dictatorship, given the criticism that's heaped on democracy.

Why don't we?

Is it that I'm misdiagnosing things and libertarians actually do feel the way I feel about democracy: that as long as democracy is constitutionally restrained it's a good thing? Or is it because they know dictatorship would be unpopular? Or is it just because people in this society are raised to be allergic to dictatorship even without thinking about why?

It's clear to me why democracy skeptics wouldn't go for fascism or socialism, but it seems to me democracy skeptics should find a more liberal dictatorship a lot more attractive than they have in practice. I mean, we're voting ourselves this welfare and loose money, right? Why aren't there more calls for libertarian dictatorship?

26 comments:

  1. Why aren't there more advocates of libertarian dictatorships?

    Because most people abhor the advocacy of logical contradictions?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But I guess that's what I'm trying to understand - why is it a contradiction? Clearly libertarianism contradicts fascism. But insofar as we're not talking about anarchists here, I don't see why libertarianism implies that democracy ought to be the mode of governance for the few state functions that do exist, rather than dictatorship.

      Given the low opinion of democracy I hear from a lot of libertarians, I'd just think there would be more entertaining the dictatorship option.

      Delete
    2. Maybe I'm just asking why there aren't more Hoppeans out there (leaving aside, for a second, his views on immigration) - he strikes a lot of us as being eccentric, but really there's not an obvious reason why he should be viewed that way by the typical libertarian that repeats his arguments to me about democracy.

      Delete
    3. Bob, if minarchists are libertarians, then there is no contradiction at all in them arguing for a libertarian dictatorship.

      Delete
  2. I think many libertarians would disagree with your claim that economists would choose better policies (and better policies with regards to what?). Many economists endorsed political policies in the Soviet Union and post-war India. With regards to the "allocative abilities of democracy," what do you mean by this? How are the "allocative abilities" of any other form of government superior? You could only argue that other forms of government would allocate less. Then there's the fact that there are alternatives to both 'modern democracy' and absolutism, including the option you list: a strictly constitutionally restrained democratically elected government.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Right - libertarians presumably wouldn't want to see a lot of the economists out there running things, that's just my view of who could compose a viable technocracy.

      On allocation, I simply mean that if you think the job of government is to address externalities and provide for situations where someone is affected by a decision but not a participant in the transaction, giving everyone an equal say is not a terrible way of mimicking a social welfare function. There are obvious wrinkles to this that we all know (Arrow and all that). But as a simple decision rule majoritarian democracy should get decent provision of goods that benefit a lot of people but it shouldn't provide goods that benefit only a few people. That's not a bad place to start if you think government should address externalities.

      re:" "Then there's the fact that there are alternatives to both 'modern democracy' and absolutism, including the option you list: a strictly constitutionally restrained democratically elected government."

      I'm not entirely sure I understand this. Isn't modern democracy the same thing as constitutionally restrained democratically elected government? Do we have good examples of democracies that don't implement democratic principles in this way? Anyway - this is what I mean when I say I'm a democrat. That's short for democratic constitutional republican.

      I think a better way of getting to my point is just to say "Libertarians seem to be some of the biggest critics of democracy that I come across on a day to day basis, so why aren't there more Hoppeans out there?"

      Delete
    2. Important term: rent seeking. The more safeguarded a government is prone to rent-seeking the better. A government constrained both by the public (a very flexible constraint) and by some type of strict document is less likely to be affected by rent-seeking. In the United States, the Constitution is not a strict constraint, because the constitution can be interpreted and these interpretations are very broad.

      Delete
  3. I think there are two separate questions being smooshed into one. The first is: what is the best way to organize collective decision making? The second is: Given the answer to the first, what should the scope of public decision making be? Many libertarians accept the public provision of certain types of goods, and under the best political system libertarians would accept a larger role for the public provision of goods than under a worse political system (assuming the provision of goods doesn't make the political system worse, somehow).

    So the attacks on democracy are aimed at deciding the second question rather than the first. If the only political system available was the divine right of kings, libertarians would probably advocate even smaller government, since monarchy compares poorly to democracy. I think, for the most part, most libertarians accept that democracy (or some form of Constitutional Republic), is the right answer to the first question*, but if democracy is still not great the scope of public decision making should be smaller, I would imagine the argument would go.

    *at least at the level of nation-state. The best way to organize a neighborhood association might be completely different.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "since monarchy compares poorly to democracy"

      From a libertarian point of view?! Government spending in England in 1620 was perhaps 5% of GDP (I've heard the figure and it's very low, but a quick google didn't discover it) and the average person could live his entire life without encountering an official of the national government. Why would any libertarian prefer democracy to that?

      Delete
    2. That figure is used by Hans-Hermann Hoppe in "The Political Economy of Monarchy and Democracy, and the Idea of Natural Order," pp. 104–105. He takes it from C.M. Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution, European Society and Economy, 1000–1700. I'm interested in how Cipolla derives his numbers, because extraction of production during feudalism was very high (~70% according to Acemoglu & Robinson [2012]).

      But, economic growth during monarchies at the time was extremely low. The growth of the middle class actually correlates with greater pluralism. It seems that, historically, merchants prefer more diffused political structures than absolutist ones. This is, in large part, because monarchs tended to oppose industrialization, extracting wealth and even prohibiting the introduction of new technologies. Acemoglu & Robinson (2012) argue that this is because increased wealth destabilized their power, which makes sense. The more wealth one has, the more effort he might put into avoiding expropriation by a monarch. The relationship is the same in France, actually (something Acemoglu & Robinson [2012] don't mention, but they don't emphasize the role of the merchant class as much as they probably should).

      Delete
    3. Gene, this is beautiful little blog reply. There's a whole sub-genre of blog replies like this one. Someone should do a prize for them, I doff my cap to you - and since I'm English I bet you know why I have a cap. ;)

      Delete
    4. I don't think that government spending as a percentage of GDP is the only thing libertarians care about, nor is the state the only instrument of repression. The scope of government may be larger, but so is the scope of private action, as compared to 1620 England. Also, wouldn't the proper comparison be with present-day democracies to present-day monarchies? (I realize Gene's post probably contains a hidden [s] [/s])

      Delete
    5. "I don't think that government spending as a percentage of GDP is the only thing libertarians care about..."

      Sure enough. But it is *something* libertarians care about, right?

      "nor is the state the only instrument of repression."

      OK, but then the form of state is a moot point, right?

      "The scope of government may be larger, but so is the scope of private action, as compared to 1620 England."

      Maybe. I beet it was a hell of a lot easier to put an addition on your house then.

      "Also, wouldn't the proper comparison be with present-day democracies to present-day monarchies?"

      Hmm... Jordan versus Switzerland? I don't think that is a "proper" comparison at all. But Lichtenstein versus Switzerland I will accept.

      "I realize Gene's post probably contains a hidden [s] [/s]"

      What dat mean?

      Delete
    6. Not every expansion of public power need reduce the scope of private action. A city government that spends 20% of my income making sure there aren't standing pools of sewage in the streets allows me a greater scope of action than one that spends 0% and does nothing to provide public goods. Unless the only input into your moral code is 'no coercive exchanges' is 0% G/GDP desirable, but at that level of government spending the average person's scope of action is probably very small. [You can have private cities where the condition of residency is paying 20% of your income, but at that point there's not much difference between a private city council and government]

      The form of the state is relevant because there can be an interaction between state oppression and non-state oppression.

      It may have been easier to put an addition on your house, but it was a lot more difficult to sell your house, not to mention act as an absentee landlord unless you were a member of a select social class. Martha Howell is good on this (though for the low countries, and with a bit of a Marxist bent), and there is, of course, Deirdre McCloskey's work that argues that the scope of private (market) action was especially constrained pre-IR.

      The [s] and [/s] are http tags indicating sarcasm.

      Delete
    7. "Not every expansion of public power need reduce the scope of private action."

      You're going to get yourself kicked out of the libertarian club, Ryan!

      "The form of the state is relevant because there can be an interaction between state oppression and non-state oppression."

      But is there any reason to think this will be greater under monarchy? I would expect it to be lower, e.g., it was often (not always) the monarch protecting the Jews against the mob. Jim Crow interacted pretty effectively with non-state oppression, didn't it?

      "but it was a lot more difficult to sell your house, not to mention act as an absentee landlord unless you were a member of a select social class."

      Sure, but how much of that was monarchy per se, and how much was simply the entire world view of the time? (Of course, monarchy might *depend* on that world view!)

      Delete
    8. Ahh, I missed what you were trying to argue. I agree that it's possible for Monarchy to outperform Democracy in terms of the scope of liberty. I think it's in Gordon Tullock's Autocracy where he argues that hereditary monarchies aren't all that bad, because all the crappy stuff comes when the power is up for grabs and the worst get on top. Just because someone is the worst doesn't mean their grandchildren will be, and once the power and ambition become uncoupled the monarchy can actually do pretty well. Of course, the transition to monarchy, or when succession is not clear, the political competition tends to be more destructive than in democracy, and the first generation winner is likely to be bad.

      So there are probably few libertarian monarchists because, even if it turns out okay a few generations in, the first 80 years would really suck, and who knows how long a dynasty would last, maybe 200-300 years? I could see defending an existing monarchy, but probably not transitioning to one.

      Delete
  4. "I'm interested in how Cipolla derives his numbers, because extraction of production during feudalism was very high"

    Feudalism was well done and over by 1620, Jonathan.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Gene appears to understand the situation, nothing he says is wrong. But, he points to facts selectively to bolster his case, carefully omitting anything that would go against it.

    In England in the 17th century there was still manorialism even though there wasn't feudalism, and there was a lot of regulation. There were no serfs, but agriculture wasn't like it was after enclosure. The open field system was still in widespread use. Common grazing land was still used too. That system was presided over by a manor court who sometimes allowed over-grazing and sometimes used detailed local rules to stop it. (I've read in various places over-grazing was common and in others that it wasn't, I don't know, but a lot of land wasn't private as we now understand it).

    There are today in England various nobles (barons) who own large areas of agricultural land and sometimes whole villages. Those are rather like any other sort of landlord, now and then. But, in the 17th century there were still "tenure" or "feudal" baronies those where the Baron owed an allegiance to the King to provide certain things - such as Knights and other military forces. So, the King didn't just obtain funds from taxation. This situation changed in 1660 when the feudal baronies were converted to normal ones and the drop in crown income was compensated for by taxing alcohol.

    I'd be interested to know how the 5% figure for government spending as a percentage of GDP is derived. Does it just refer to Crown spending? Does it account for local government? The Poor Laws, for example, were administrated on a parish-by-parish basis. A normal person may meet no agent of national government in his whole life, but he'd be sure to meet those of local government.

    Even if it does refer to all spending we mustn't forget about the regulatory situation. At that time there were many regulations on business and everyday life. Different ranks of society could where different types of clothes. These laws are often referred to as for preventing the extravagances of the aristocracy, but that was only part of the point. There was a law requiring the common people to wear wollen caps on sundays and public holidays. This was a sop to the wool industry. I think in the 17th century (certainly in the late C16th) there were still laws requiring that each householder spend six days a year maintaining the local roads, that isn't a tax but it's rather similar. Usury laws still existed preventing loans made at an interest rate of 10% or more. Since debasement was still in use at the time that would make the limit on the real interest rate even lower.

    The Crown still created monopolies, gave them to favourites and sold them to earn income, or it took percentages of the profits of those monopolies. As Rothbard describes the Eastland company was given a monopoly on the export of cloth, with disastrous results ( http://mises.org/daily/5951/The-Principles-of-Liberalism-in-17thCentury-England ). Industries like salt, paper, starch and glass were granted as monopolies to certain groups of individuals. Much of that ended in 1623 with the Statute of Monopolies.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Gene appears to understand the situation, nothing he says is wrong. But, he points to facts selectively to bolster his case, carefully omitting anything that would go against it."

      You're making me out to be too Machiavellian. Of course, in challenging a prejudice against monarchy, I am going to focus on the facts that might challenge that prejudice! Most people have their heads all full up of a case against monarchy already, so I don't feel much need to be making the counter-case. It's not like I am scheming to hide things from them.

      As far as manorialism goes, there were surely no or essentially no serfs by 1620, right? And if so, then what you have are big landlords, something one can have in democracy as well, right?

      Similarly for monopolies and protectionism: democracies have done fine creating legal monopolies and blocking free trade, thank you.

      Delete
  6. "Why aren't there more advocates of libertarian dictatorships?"

    Perhaps if you'd care to name 10-20 libertarian dictators, maybe libertarians would see the benefits of libertarian dictators.

    Fidel Castro? Kim Jong-il? Pol Pot? Saddam Hussein? Stop me when I get to the libertarian dictators...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pinochet seems to have passed the test for many libertarians in the past. Can you name me a libertarian democracy?

      Delete
  7. "Pinochet seems to have passed the test for many libertarians in the past."

    BS. I defy you to find one libertarian who would classify Pinochet as a libertarian. He was more "libertarian" than Allende perhaps in the sense that Gorbachev was more "libertarian" than Brezhnev. That doesn't mean Pinochet or Gorbachev were even remotely "libertarian."

    "Can you name me a libertarian democracy?"

    I can give you abundant evidence that the closer democracies get to being libertarian, the better places they are to live. And I can give you abundant evidence that there exist democracies that are closer to libertarianism than any dictatorship has ever come.

    For both cases, simply use the (Heritage Foundation/Frasier Institute) Index of Economic Freedom and the Freedom House Freedom Index (which measures political and civil liberties freedom).

    If you rank all countries from best to worst for both for the Economic Freedom and Civil Liberties indexes, the countries that are at the top of *both* (economic and civil liberties indices) tend to be the most libertarian countries in the world. And they are also the best places to live. And they are all democracies. You won't find any dictatorships near the top for both economic freedom and civil liberties freedom.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You and I seem to be talking about different things: a dictator who is a libertarian and a dictatorship as the mode of governance of a libertarian polity.

      You will get no disagreement from me that freer countries are the best place to live and have the strongest growth. There's a difference between a society being free and it being libertarian (although obviously libertarians are going to have a considerable amount of overlap with other liberals in what they'd like to see).

      Delete
  8. Not long ago I read that in 19th century America people talked about democratic republics and aristocratic republics, a republic having no monarch. These days we take little heed of what aristocrats are left in the world, at least those having titles. But it is not too hard to think of Hearst's San Simeon as a small duchy. I have been wondering if, without the titles, an aristocratic republic would be a libertarian ideal.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "You and I seem to be talking about different things:"

    Perhaps we are. I *thought* you were asking why no one advocates "libertarian dictatorships."

    I was responding that no one advocates "libertarian dictactorships" because libertarian dictatorships don't exist...and have never come even close to existing. A person who has a libertarian philosophy has never in all of history (to my knowledge) ever become a dictator.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of democracies that are closer to libertarianism than any dictatorship has ever been.

    "There's a difference between a society being free and it being libertarian..."

    Yes, I define "libertarian" as having only laws that protect people from unwanted violence and fraud. So no countries have that much freedom. But the closer countries get to that condition, the better they are to live in.

    For example, according to Wikipedia, the only three countries that are ranked as both economically free, and free according to Freedom House are:

    Wikipedia on Freedom Indices

    Switzerland,
    Australia, and
    New Zealand.

    (Sort by descending Economic Freedom to see that.)

    It's no coincidence that all three are wonderful places to live. And if they became even more libertarian, they'd be even better places to live.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I think that it comes down to the fact that libertarians are opposed to sovereigns. After all, by definition, a sovereign can ignore your rights. A democracy (modern constitutional democracy that is) is constrained by all sorts of rules and by a certain inherent immobilism. (I must admit I cheer when I hear Congress fails to do anything) A dictator by definition would be free of such constraints and your rights would be subject to his or her whims.

    I think on top of that is a certain historical accident. The two defining conflicts of the later 20th century (the cold war and WWII) were fights between fairly free democracies and extremely unfree non-democracies. It's hard to forget that fact.

    ReplyDelete

All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.