Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A common argument for libertarianism actually degenerates into a case for anarchism - and libertarians need to accept that

So maybe half of that last post was copied from what I wrote on a facebook thread about the Lind post. I also wrote on facebook "And the ironic thing here is that libertarians that talk about institutional robustness and the inability to plan society ought to be able to admit this."

That set off an exchange that I also think is worth sharing. Kevin, a facebook friend, responded:
"Daniel, I don't think this is particularly ironic. Libertarians tend to want to plan only to the extent that we create institutions that do not allow for top-down planning. So, when I say that a free market in education will likely do better for us than a government quasi-monopoly, that is me saying that i know better than others that I don't know better than others, and want to see a system where 'planning' is done by many people making many different decisions in a way where no one group can force their preferences on others. So, in one sense, I am saying that I do know better than others. But only to the degree that I (think I) know that a system where no central planning is possible will probably be better than the centrally planned one we have now."
This, I think, is misleading. I responded:
" Kevin - right, but there are many ways to have governing institutions besides central planning. Think of what an anarchist would do with your argument. He'd ask - by the exact same logic - why have any governing institutions at all (I'm assuming here you're not an anarchist - I don't think you are). Your argument here has to degenerate into anarchism if your only case against me is that I want the government to be able to do a few more things than you do. Why is your line in the sand better than mine? We're both classical liberals after all.

There are two ways out of this.

First, we accept your argument and capitulate to the anarchists.

This doesn't seem right to me. There are a ton of coercions and violations of liberty in the world that a government can potentially do something about AND be the lesser of two coercive options. Anarchism therefore is antithetical to the maximization of liberty (which is presumably the common concern of everyone here, as liberals).

But if we then accept that something's not right about your argument because it clearly degenerates into an ideology that is clearly at odds with maximizing liberty, we then have to figure out how to construct a set of institutions that try to come close to maximizing liberty. This set of institutions is the second way out, and it's the best way out I think (better than capitulating to anarchists).

Now we're left with the problem I noted earlier: how do we know your line in the sand is better than my line in the sand.

We don't.

So we should construct institutions that (1.) restrain government from depredations where there's a lot of agreement, and (2.) where there isn't agreement - in other words where there is pluralism - allow for deliberation, argument, trying different things in different jurisdictions, and voting about it.

This whole set of problems is why I think Buchanan's constitutional work is a lot more important than his public choice work. Public choice is fairly common sense stuff. It's the two-stage nature of institutions or rules of the game on the one hand and policy or decisions on the other that offers real value added to the conversation."


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