Ridiculous “Libertarian” Arguments

Libertarian politicians have received their fair share of criticism from the press, mostly as a means of discrediting them. The two biggest cases I can think of are,

  1. During the 2012 presidential campaign season, Ron Paul’s involvement with a newsletter published during the 1980s and 1990s was brought to the spot light. These newsletters, as it turns out, are riddled with racism. Ron Paul defended himself and claimed that he never read that material, let alone write it, and it’s generally accepted — at least, I think so — that a ghostwriter is most likely responsible. A name that I remember floating around is Lew Rockwell’s. This Atlantic piece is a good summary of what happened;
  2. More recently, Rand Paul’s campaign suffered a major setback when the media found out that one of his advisers believed in the interpretation of the American Civil War that it was not fought over slavery, but over tariffs and other such forms of extractive Northern politics. This is the false story advocated by scholars such as Tom DiLorenzo.

There’s another belief that a minority — I hope — of libertarians hold that I was reminded of yesterday, because of all the social media flutter on the Royal baby. Four years ago or so, in preparation for fourth of July, Stephen Kinsella wrote that secession from Britain was a “mistake,” arguing that we substituted monarchy for “democracy worship.” Kinsella has been influenced by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who in an incredibly naïve comparative analysis of political institutions (see Hoppe [1995] and Hoppe [1994]) concludes that monarchs have better incentives for non-extractive behavior than democracies. (Hoppe is unequivocally wrong — the rise of relatively pluralistic governance is related to the establishment and enforcement of broader property rights.) I wonder how long it will take for this idea to bite libertarianism in the ass.

In defense of these kind of arguments, except the racism one, there’s value in being a contrarian — if argued otherwise I’d be a hypocrite. The people who espouse these ideas aren’t idiots; they’re smart people. They have reasons for believing what they do, and they should absolutely express their thoughts and try to persuade their peers. But, if we think that some idea is particularly bad, we shouldn’t be afraid of discrediting the life out of it.

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  1. At your “false story” link you have a quote from a review, “a travesty of historical method and documentation.” Here is another from the same review, “it is essentially correct in every charge it makes against Lincoln”.

    • My educated guess is that the charges the reviewer has in mind are like the ones he lists near the beginning of the review (when I copy & paste it loses its original formatting, so for the sake of saving myself time I’m referring to the content in the second and third paragraphs of the review). Like I wrote in that post you’re referring to, I’m not a civil war scholar, so I don’t know how controversial those specific points are. But, none of them are “the war wasn’t fought over slavery” (which it was, because the southern states were afraid of losing the political power necessary to maintain the right to own slaves).

      • Those points seem to me open to interpretation as that the war was indeed fought over slavery but possibly for the wrong reasons, influenced by other interests in varying importance such as political career, tax revenue, legacy, national loyalty, defense concerns, whatever depending on the individual. I agree that slavery was part of the war but I’m inclined to doubt that genuine abolitionist ideals were necessarily what spurred members of the Union government to devastating action.

        • I agree with you with regards to the north’s intentions. The north did not fight the war to abolish slavery. But, there are two separate claims: why the north pursued war and why the south seceded. The problem with DiLorenzo’s, and others’, historical revisionism has to do with the second claim.

  2. In the post where you responded to Hoppe’s claims about Monarchy, you say “Democracy came about because of a striving for pluralism, and it’s this pluralism that helps people defend themselves and improve their standards of living.”

    I often think of Democracy as being anti-pluralistic, precisely because power is in the hands of the largest group. I think of the position of Copts in Egypt, of African Americans and Native Americans and Japanese Americans in the United States, or of Muslims in France (i.e. the headscarf debate). For example, we can consider most states that offer free and compulsory public education. The states offer free education, which prices a lot of competition out of the market, and then enforce a mandatory curriculum in order to encourage cultural homogeneity. And this homogeneity-encouraging institution, free schooling, is funded by the taxes of the possibly heterogeneous many.

    I would be interested in reading a future post that goes into more detail about how Democracy encourages pluralism and broader enforcement of property rights. Or more delving into what we mean when we use the word pluralism. I’m not saying that Monarchy is inherently plural, it’s just that I don’t understand the argument for why Democracy is.

    • Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, does some of the work for me. Some of the criticisms of democracy are missing from that book (and I think some of the emphasis on centralization is misguided), but I like its discussion on how the extractive monarchies of Europe eventually gave way to constitutional restraints. I’ve been interested in writing something more detailed, but I don’t think I’m ready yet. I’ve been trying to reconcile what I’ve learned from Buchanan and Tullock with what I’ve learned from Bryan Caplan, Jeffrey Friedman, Acemoglu, et cetera: the advantages and disadvantages of democracy, as compared to alternative political institutions. Also, this isn’t my main research interest, so my forays into the literature are sparse and far between. But, one point I’ve tried to make when I can is that when criticizing democracy we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is still a lot of room for institutional reform (and there probably always will be), but this doesn’t mean we have to get rid of democracy — broadly defined –, or government more generally.

      When I say that democracy is more pluralistic, or more inclusive, than monarchy, I mean that the opinions of more people are, directly or indirectly, included in the decision-making process. And this political participation of a greater number of people is institutionalized (whereas a monarchy may ultimately have to face the will of the people, but this isn’t institutionalized in the sense that it guides day-to-day political decision making). I sympathize with the idea that democracy is a “tyranny of the majority,” but this isn’t always true. We have institutions that protect minorities too, and it’s possible for majority coalitions to change over time, such that everyone gains overall. This is one of the arguments in The Calculus of Consent, where in order to form coalitions over time people trade votes. So, if you’re interested in establishing a social safety net and I’m interested in road construction, we may agree to trade votes if our differences in preferences allow for it.

      This being said, I’m also highly sympathetic to Jeffrey Friedman’s critique of democracy on the grounds of “radical ignorance” (human error). If modern democracies don’t restrict the domain of choice in ways to minimize error, or minimize the negative impact of error, then these are major institutional shortcomings. But, like I said before, it’s important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

      • I didn’t mean to assert one way or another whether Democracy should be kept or thrown out. All I meant to say is that I’ve always regarded it as an anti-pluralistic system of governance. Whether it compares favorably or unfavorably to other systems, we ought to be honest and call a spade a spade.

        I see what you mean when you say the opinions of more people are involved in the decision-making. I guess I distinguish between what we might call pluralistic “inputs” vs pluralistic “outcomes.” Democracy is certainly a more pluralistic system of “inputs” in terms of more people being involved in how society’s institutions are architected.

        On the other hand, I would consider strong protection of individual property, or strong protection free speech, to be pluralistic “outcomes.” Having choice about which school to go to (rather than being forced into a specific school) I consider to be a pluralistic outcome. Making US Social Security opt-in to me would be to me a pluralistic outcome.

        It’s possible that pluralistic inputs in government tend toward pluralistic outcomes in institutions, but my gut tells me to be skeptical. I’ll have to think it over.

        I will put Why Nations Fail on my reading list.

        • I don’t mean to push the issue further, but I thought you may find one of the central conclusions of The Calculus of Consent interesting. You mention that a lot of democratic outcomes aren’t pluralistic. For example, your input was never considered about the school you attended. You’re right, these are external costs that are imposed on you. Buchanan and Tullock’s argument is that these kind of things are inevitable at the operational level — when individual decisions are made –, because it would be far too costly to reach unanimous decisions. But, we can agree on the constitutional level, which is when society chooses the process by which decisions are made. And, once at the operational level, we can trade votes.

          Now, this doesn’t necessarily perfectly describe the United States: “The relevance of the contract theory must lie, however, not in its explanation of the origin of government, but in its potential aid in perfecting existing institutions of government.” But, the rough process that Buchanan and Tullock sketch is done through representatives, and the method they’re elected decides how unanimous the ultimate decision will actually be.

    • Well, I think most people nowadays use racism in the way defined, say, here. I think it’s reasonable to have a word that means, more or less, discrimination on the basis of race. To clarify its use with regards to the newsletters, the motivations behind some of the statements seem racist. For example, what else would motivate a statement like “95% blacks are criminals.”

      • Most people take “racist” to mean anything that’s racially offensive, which is entirely subjective. Some expand it to mean anything that results in unequal outcomes. I get called “racist” for reporting IQ and crime statistics. Most blacks aren’t criminals, but more than 50% of all murders and robberies are committed by blacks.

        • There’s a fine line. Statistics are one thing, but statistics can be misleading. If there are 1,000 murders, say, and 50% are committed by blacks, then that’s 500 murders. The population of blacks in that geographic area could be 10,000 — that’s 5% of the black population. What’s racist is using statistics like those to try and draw general conclusions about the black community, especially without looking at other factors: poverty, education, etc.

          • So anyone who draws general conclusions about races based on statistics is “racist.” You’re rejecting the definition you introduced earlier. By your criteria, one must feign ignorance — or at least refrain from identifying consistent patterns of racial divergences — in order to not be racist.

          • Nobody is “putting down” a race, they’re just showing general patterns. When it comes to race and “racism” most liber(al)tarians are no better than liberals

  3. Leland Yeager makes a case for monarchy in an essay in “Is the Market a Test of Truth and Beauty?”. I think they make a lot of good points. I don’t see anything great about democracy except for the fact is a peaceful means of political change. I do find the idea of living under a monarchy odious, but it is more of an emotive response than a rational one. I don’t see why the institutions formed under a constitutional monarchy would necessarily be less inclusive than those formed under a democracy. England did pretty well while it was under a monarchy.

    • Constitutional monarchies typically include democratic representation, such as in England. England (and later Great Britain) preformed better as its governance became more inclusive; e.g. as it democratized. I’m not an expert on the political history of England, but at least since the 13th century it has been about a struggle between the monarch, the nobility, and later parliament (which, at first, was the nobility).

  4. I really wonder how Kinsella thinks he can win new libertarian converts by attacking the American Revolution. Who knows, maybe he has semi-reasonable arguments–but attacking *the* core mythos of American identity is a complete non-starter for 99.9999% of US non-libertarians. The few people who would support Kinsella on this are probably already fans of the Mises Institute! [This is prob the one issue which would turn off more non-libertarians than Civil War revisionism--even the racists won't support it!]

    I like Kinsella’s intellectual property stuff, but Hoppe brings nothing to the libertarian table, imo. I actually bought “Democracy: The God that Failed,” and I strongly regretted it just a quarter of the way through. Thanks to guys like these, libertarians will soon be known as racist, unpatriotic, monarchy-worshipping goldbugs. When will people at the Mises Institute wake up and call them on this BS?

    • I hate to talk s#!& about the MI, but the answer is probably “never.” At least, not until the people responsible for its direction changes (e.g. Lew Rockwell). Until then, I feel that the group of scholars associated with it will continue to shrink, or at least it will continue to consolidate around a specific group of historians/economists. They’ve only retrogressed in the past year and a half. It’s too bad, because I still haven’t found a good Mises Daily replacement.

  5. There’s a reason the founding fathers had a mixed-republic limited to an extremely small and educated subset of the population rather than a democracy. Well run corporations are not governed by democracy, and why would they be? The system doesn’t scale particularly well as has a terrible track record in developing countries.

    Democratic governments in Africa, for example, tend to secure far less freedom than the imposed rule of law via colonialism. This is a subject worth looking into for curious libertarians.

    Also there has been a serious sleight-of-hand equivocation with the term “racism”, originally a term that designated hatred of members of a race that is now muddled to mean the simple contention that races are not endowed with identical abilities and inclinations. The alternative is a religious-like adherence to egalitarianism that opposes investigation into biological and genetic differences between peoples and a rejection of evolutionary psychology.

    I’ve found that the truth is far more complicated than we’ve been led to believe and we would best question the religious zeal with which we hold concepts like equality, democracy, or liberty. These are slogans bordering on the incoherent.

    • There’s a reason the founding fathers had a mixed-republic limited to an extremely small and educated subset of the population rather than a democracy.

      Because they believed that only property owning white men have the right to vote?

      There are differences between the “democratic” institutions of many African, and Latin American, Asian, etc., countries and the democratic institutions of the United States, Western Europe, etc. Institutional constraints vary, and some new democracies have very weak constraints, typically because they are transitioning from extractive regimes; so, new institutions (which are path-dependent) will inherit some of these extractive features. These institutions can improve over time, like they have in Chile, Mexico, and Brazil.

      And, I agree that maybe an obsession with political correctness, or at least neutrality, has warped the meaning of racism. But, more often than not, I think accusations of racism are pretty accurate — when we throw around these words we use our intuition to decide whether the use is right. I think peoples’ intuitions, in this case, are mostly right.