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!!


Nat said...

Great post, but why didn't you talk about the motivation for these particular views being in the penumbra? I would have been interested to hear your take on that. It seems like a good deal of them have do in fact have to do with liberty, unlike what Bryan says. But instead of being consequences OF liberty, they entail or support other, more critical libertarian views.

For example, with the higher population --> economic growth idea, most people who don't hold this will say with their next breath that, since a higher population is in fact worse for the world, the government should interfere to limit population (it's sort of like a market failure). The easiest way, it seems, to counter this is to say that a higher population instead causes economic growth, so there's nothing to worry about.

Lester Hunt said...

Good question about motivation. I'll try to add to the post about that.

As to the point about population, it is true that governments to encourage population growth, if it's such a gosh darn good thing. Hitler had several such policies (aimed at encouraging Germans to have more kids).

Will Wilkinson said...

Lester, As I said in response to the same question on my blog: "I wouldn't put it the way Scott did. Distrust of everything is healthy. I find ideological anti-democracy cringe-worthy."

Max said...

I'm not sure that I understand this completely.

I distrust democracy, if 'democracy' means a system that is not constrained by individual rights.

Can you clarify your point on negative/positive liberty? I just don't get it.

Lester Hunt said...


By "distrust of democracy" you didn't mean mere failure to trust in it, but actual hostility of some sort. Sounds like we do agree on that.


There are rights-based arguments for not breaching negative liberty, but by themselves they don't tell us why it is going to be positively valuable to people. The case for that generally comes around to the idea that it produces positive liberty. By making a possible a greater abundance of knowledge and wealth, it leads to people actually be able to do things they wish to do.

Max said...

Thanks! I agree with that.

Shannon Chamberlain said...

I'm not sure I buy your point about private schools and added value. Maybe the added value is simply that they enroll a self-selecting population which may care more about education than people who are content with the public schools. I also wouldn't underestimate the value of being able to kick people out for bad behavior. It seems to create a different environment, at least in terms of discipline.

More broadly, homeschooling seems to fall, typically, to women. I think it ends up becoming one of those critical mass issues: women usually do it, so women expect that if anyone is doing it, it will be them. Women tend to choose their educational paths a little differently if they expect that they will just be staying home with the kids, anyway. So it strikes me as something of a loss of human potential, especially if you think about it from the aspect of comparative advantage. Unless I have a natural inclination to pedagogy, my time is probably better spent on something besides schooling my children.

Lester Hunt said...

Shannon C.,

Those are good points. As to the first one -- that in private schools there is a very different culture because people are there voluntarily and are thus self-selecting -- looking back on the years when our kid was in Montessori schools (before we ran out of money!) that really did make a difference. All the parents were there because they cared enough about education to have opinions about what it should be like -- and they were willing to plunk down their own money on this particular idea.

I guess the only thing I would say on the other side is that I doubt that for most parents (even the ones who care this much) this alone is worth the extra expense (which for most budgets is very significant).

As to your other point, I admit that a system in which the only choices realistically available to most people is government schooling or home schooling is in a way stacked against women. Here I am *somewhat* swayed by the thought that in families that do home school, it was probably the woman's idea in the first place -- that she was the one who cared enough to actually do it herself.

But I suppose the best system would be one in which private schooling is affordable for everyone.

Will S. said...

Tied in with an increased propensity of some to belief in conspiracy theories, is a corresponding belief in alternative diets, such as the "paleo" diet, or occasional fasting (I forget the term, but occasionally intentionally going without food for 24 hours, and doing this routinely, e.g. every few weeks); this seems to arise out of a belief that everything we know about diet and nutrition is wrong, being propaganda indoctrinated into us in public schools, thanks to big agribusiness being in cahoots with the State.

I'm not sure what to make of this; I am inclined to skepticism about nutritionists who seem to keep changing their minds every few years, at one time saying eat more fibre, esp. bran; another time saying, oh no, that's too many carbs; sometimes saying eat more eggs; other times saying no don't eat too many eggs; at some times saying eat more fruit and vegetables; another time saying fruit is too glycemic, so don't eat too much fruit or drink fruit juice, etc. etc. (I almost forgot the endless articles on Yahoo, etc., that alternate between saying one should have a drink or two of beer or wine every day, then other articles saying one ought to cut back on alcoholic beverages to reap health benefits.)

And doubtless, it is surely the case that politically connected food businesses have influenced government policies and perhaps even nutrition education in schools.

On the other hand, libertarians tend to be faddish and paranoid, and alternative diets can be symptomatic of either or both.

Lester Hunt said...

Good point, Will! My son told me I should add unusual food ideas like the paleo diet to my list, but I wasn't sure it was sufficiently common -- though I am in fact I am on the paleo diet myself!

I think the reason for this tendency in libertarians is, as you suggest, a contrarian mindset that can sometimes bleed into paranoia: a real readiness to believe that a lot of what we are told is BS, provided there is a good argument against it. Or even with no real argument at all!

I've noticed one big difference between me an all the libertarian paleos I've met: my nutrition guru is an actual scietist. That's Loren Cordain, professor of nutrition at Colorado State. They all seem to prefer one "personal trainer" or another or, worse yet, some crank with a web site.

Bart Torvik said...

Perhaps the reason libertarians are prone to try the "paleo diet" (if they are) is that it allows (and requires) them to reject literally every cuisine -- or food culture -- that has ever existed. I think libertarians tend to distrust the oppressive force of culture (i.e., other people) in all its forms.

I'm sort of joking here, but not completely.

Lester Hunt said...

Ouch. Well, some libertarians are real "people persons." Rose Wilder Lane wrote thousands of letters to ordinary people, Ayn Rand spent hours discussing economics and ethics with her maid. But that is something of an exception. Come to think of it, they were both women, and most libertarians are men.

I'm not so sure of the "rejecting every great cuisine" idea. If that were what they are doing, I think it would make more sense to be a vegan. Veganism *really* disembowels all the great ones (unless you count the Buddhist cuisines). The idea of a Chines, French, or Mexican meal with no animal protein is virtually self-contradictory.

Maybe the paleo diet is like veganism for "real men": it's totally deviant and makes you seem crazy to other people -- and it involves killing and butchering.

Puzzled said...

Well, yes, some odd beliefs that are not technically part of libertarianism are common in the libertarian world. But #1 is an absurdity. Throughout history, a monetary crackpot has been understood as one who thinks more printing of money will increase wealth. The Austrian theory of the business cycle won Hayek the Nobel Prize. The application of "crackpot" to Austrian macro is simply an attempt to win a policy debate through insult and intimidation.

On dieting, well, I've found that what I do works for me, whereas eating like a "sane" person left me fat and sick. Call me any names you wish.

Lester Hunt said...

I agree with you on both points, but in both cases you seem to be disagreeing with value judgments--
Will's gratuitous use of "crackpot" to describe certain monetary theories, and the idea that these diets are "crazy." This is irrelevant to his and Bryan's real point, though,which is that libertarians tend to share certain beliefs that,whether they are sensible or not, have no evident logical connection with libertarianism.

Come to think of it, though, I think a case can easily be made that both these ideas are logically related to libertarianism. Maybe I should post about that!