I was reminded recently of one of my favorite James Buchanan (but not really Buchanan) lines, that "economics is the art of putting parameters on our utopias" when I read the beginning of the discussion between Michael Lind and Russ Roberts where he said "if you can't point to a single country out of nearly 200 sovereign states on this planet in 2013, that you approve of, then isn't your ideology fundamentally unworldly and utopian?"
The not-Buchanan quote could mean a lot of things in a lot of different applications, obviously, but one recent example has been Michael Lind's question to libertarians about why their ideas have not been tried. It was an excellent question. Lind is not an economist, but he could have been with that question because of its attention to the real world, its consideration of unintended consequences, and it's effort to put parameters on libertarian utopias.
For some reason, though, libertarians seem to have a terrible time tethering themselves to reality when it comes to evaluating their own ideas and the reaction to Lind was a great case in point. People were fuming and insulting to him, and often didn't really bother to grapple with the question.
The question is an important one. It is one thing to have a libertarian master plan in a treatise somewhere that looks great on paper, but if in practice it is (1.) not robust, or (2.) has unintended consequences then we've got to rethink the whole project. It's very difficult to get libertarians to really come to grips with this - they'll often dodge the problem altogether. Reagan, for example, identified as a "libertarian conservative", approved of Hayek, etc. etc. In practice, though, the Reagan administration was not what libertarians wanted to see. This should be a lesson in the public choice problems posed by libertarianism as it is actually practiced in the real world, but the reaction is usually to deny that libertarianism even came into the equation because they didn't like the results.
You might draw the conclusion from the Reagan experience, for example, that libertarianism is awful for the budget. And yet we never had a "Democracy in Deficit"esque critique of libertarianism from public choice theorists that I know of. In fact, public choice theorists often act as if public choice still vindicates libertarianism.
You might draw the conclusion that libertarianism opens the door to regulatory capture and crony capitalism. But if you try telling that to a libertarian they'll insist that because there was crony capitalism it clearly wasn't libertarianism in the first place!
With these kinds of arguments an evaluation of libertarianism isn't even possible. They assume their own conclusions. The question is, for example "does libertarianism result in crony capitalism", but the libertarian response is always "there is crony capitalism therefore this can't possibly be a case against libertarianism".
What the hell are we supposed to do with that?
Ideologies are complex beasts. Certainly we can contest all of this stuff and argue about it. But the more these problems are rationalized away as not being libertarian in the first place, the more libertarians bump up against the opposite problem of libertarianism being a pie-in-the-sky utopia that doesn't have any hope of being relevant in the real world.
Something's got to give here, and a good place to start is by taking that first Lind question more seriously.
I haven't gotten a chance to listen to the whole thing yet - if I do and I have more thoughts I'll share here. I'm not a huge Lind fan, but I do think he nailed it with that question and I was disappointed to see people attack him for it rather than provide a considered response.
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