Tuesday, June 4, 2013

No, you cannot hide libertarianism behind public choice theory like that

So apparently I am doing my best writing this afternoon on facebook this afternoon, so I'm going to be copying more. This is from a guy named David (I'm assuming first names are sufficiently anonymous... I know the guy in the last post hasn't minded me posting his comments before and I don't suspect this one minds either). He begins by agreeing with something I said but then moves into what I think is a bad, but common argument:
"What a great quote, "the best institutions should not have to rely on a small segment of the population being more insightful than the rest of society".

More to the point, though, I'm sure you're aware of public choice theory. If you buy into much of what it claims, there's a pretty strong explanation there as to why you don't see a bunch of libertarian states."
I respond:
"David - but this is where people's use of good economic theory becomes extremely politically opportunistic.

If I want to establish an agency to protect the environment and it - quite predictably - goes through some regulatory capture and crony-capitalist type abuse, my effort is pointed to as a failure by the usual suspects, even if I am happy to admit that I expected some imperfections in practice and I still think the imperfect version is worth it.

But somehow you can point to the exact same process -the exact same degeneration of a libertarian state into a crony capitalist type state using the exact same public choice arguments that were operating in my environmental agency, but it's a shield for libertarianism whereas it's an argument against having the environmental agency.

That's an extremely weak argument for libertarianism - although I agree with you it's extremely strong in its descriptive power.

But that's my whole point. You are hiding behind public choice theory the same way Marxists do when they say that communism hasn't been proven a failure - it's just those terrible statist elites that we're stuck with in implementing it that are the problem.

In sum, if you have this great idea for an institution that will produce human flourishing but that will never work then you do not have a great idea for an institution that will produce human flourishing."
You can file all of my thinking on this stuff under the heading "how I learned to stop worrying and love American democracy" because for those of you that aren't aware, I used to be a libertarian too back as an undergraduate.


  1. A challenge for libertarians is to ask for a dozen laws that enhance and extend liberty and a dozen instances where the lack of laws restrict and inhibit it.

  2. "Daniel" whoever he was, is simply giving a good reason why Libertarianism doesn't happen. If the benefits of government policies are concentrated and their costs are defused among a large population then politicians will enact those policies anyway. To members of the electorate fighting them costs too. Does this make Libertarianism impractical? to a degree, yes, though there may be changes to institutions that could be made to improve the situation and competition between states can improve the situation.

  3. My thoughts on this were sufficiently long that it evolved from a comment to a blog post:


    But to summarize, I agree and think that libertarians would benefit themselves and the world if they mused harder on these questions.


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