Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Libertarian Penumbra

Bryan Caplan introduced a useful concept: the libertarian penumbra, or ideas and attitudes libertarians tend to share even though they have little to do with liberty.

Bryan's examples:
  • Most libertarians accept the validity of IQ testing. A perfectly good libertarian could reject IQ tests as "culturally biased," but few do.
  • Libertarians have favorable views of home schooling - even though conventional private schooling is equally consistent with libertarian principles.
  • Libertarianism implies opposition to government population control, but it doesn't imply another view common among libertarians: that population growth has major economic benefits because people are "the ultimate resource." Notice: A statist who took this idea seriously could easily argue for government intervention to raise the birth rate.
Here is Will Wilkinson's list:
1. Crackpot theories of money/macro. A tendency to overlook the problem of demand shocks.
2. Global warming denial. (But skepticism about Gore-type solutions is fine.)
3. Overlooking the importance of having a “civic-minded” culture, such as you observe in Denmark.
4. Distrust of democracy.
5. Overlooking the importance of private non-profit enterprises.
6. Making the perfect be the enemy of the “much better.”
7. Confusing individualism with libertarianism.
8. Seeing history through middle class white male eyes.
9. Too much nostalgia for the past, and for the future. Right now was once the future, and will soon be the past.
10. I can’t think of anything else, but all lists should have ten items.
I would add a couple of others:

1. A tendency to think believe in "negative liberty" (not being interfered with) rather than "positive liberty" (being able to actually do what you would like to do) even though if negative liberty did not increase positive liberty it would have little or no value.

2. Belief in conspiracy theories. Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, 9/11 and God know what else were inside jobs. As I have pointed out before, the psychology of conspiracy theories is actually profoundly freedom-unfriendly. The two most influential conspiracy theories of the twentieth century were Nazism (it's all a Jewish plot!) and Communism (it's all a capitalism plot!). On the other hand, the logic of the case for free markets is the opposite of a conspiracy theory: it argues that things that look like they are the product of human intention actually are not. Gas prices do not rise in times of shortage just because speculators behind the scenes are pulling strings to screw the consumers. (Hat-tip to the late Robert Nozick for this point.)

Two things I would consider taking off the above lists:

1. Homeschooling boosterism makes sense to me. If one parent was going to stay home anyway, it is a lot cheaper than private schooling and hence more within the reach of everybody. Also, for various reasons, private schooling is not that different from public. The obnoxious ideas that contaminate the latter are actually worse in private schools: eg., fanatical diversity-worship, environmentalism practiced with the fervency and sanctimony of a religious faith. Unless your private school offers something that is simply not allowed in public schools (eg., the Montessori method, or religious indoctrination) your private school is probably a huge, tragic waste of money.

2. Why on Earth does Will think distrust of democracy is irrelevant to liberty?

Update in response to a question in the comment section: I can see two sorts of motivations for the unnecessary and in some cases silly beliefs in the above lists:

1. A false notion that the belief is supportive of liberty. Libertarian conspiracy theories always have governments doing evil things. I would point out though that they also show them doing evil with super-human efficiency, bringing about only the evil effects that they fiendishly intend, never bringing about counter-productive unforeseen side-effects, and always brilliantly concealing virtually every visible trace of their fiendish plots. This of course is grossly inconsistent with libertarianism.

2. As Bryan says, there is also a sort of contrarian, iconoclastic mind-set at work here. If the intellectual elites say everything is racist, then by God we're going to say nothing is racist. If they say a) global warming is real, b) it is human-caused, c) they have a human-caused solution ready for deployment, and d) said deployment will be worth the cost -- then by God we will deny (a) through (d), not just (c) and (d). That'll show them!!
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