html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: 'Got your back, big guy.

Friday, August 10, 2007

'Got your back, big guy.

Strikes me that Prof. Rodrik could use some back-up from an obscure water and dating blogger.
The real revolutionaries here are the libertarians. They envisage a real good world out there that looks like nothing we have now (or have ever had), and they want us to get there. Second, there are really deep philosophical differences here that have nothing to do with economics per se. Most importantly, I believe government can be a force for good; they do not. But third, libertarians hold on to their priors so strongly that they seem impervious to evidence.

I've thought similar things, but not exactly that. I was totally with him on the part about libertarians envisaging a real good world that looks nothing like what we have now. That was a maddening part about discussing water use in the Klamath; that people started arguments from a different imaginary state. "But if it were totally different" they say, "wouldn't you prefer this?" That's a question that makes me blink a lot and tilt my head. It isn't different. Going from here to different isn't possible under the laws and expectations and physical set-up we have now. If we tried to make it that kind of different, the people involved would take up arms and revolt. So it isn't different and it can't be. "Right!" said my commenters. "But if it were, would you agree that...?"* So yeah. I agreed with Prof. Rodrik on this one.

He was right about the second part, the philosophical differences, as well. I've gotten real curious about this, so I'll ask you, should you comment, to tell me where you got your core beliefs on libertarianism. Please, no one argue with those. They're largely immutable anyway. I would be happy with anything from "I've been poor and hungry and I could be again and I want something to catch me if I fall" to "My core beliefs are an outgrowth of the Myth of the Frontier combined with the remnants of American Calvinism." I'm asking you to look under your reasons and tell us what is there.

His third point, that libertarians were impervious to evidence, I wouldn't put like that. But, I did think that the libertarian commenters were willing to offer opinions about systems they didn't know well. My perception was that the people I was arguing with knew their libertarian philosophy well and some econ well, but not, you know, how farming works. So they would prescribe the libertarian economist remedy of markets confident that understanding econ is sufficient to have an accurate opinion. I'd say, 'but the required assumptions simply don't hold', and get back 'but they must, because econ says' (or, if they did hold and we're back at the top). So I don't think that libertarians are impervious to evidence, but it has to be evidence in a form sanctified by academic economics. Evidence from the system itself (environment, law) was highly discounted.**

UPDATE 4/25/8: Another dude who thinks libertarians opine about systems they don't know well.

* Me, personally? I tend not to care what would happen if it were different. If we get to make things different by magic, teasing out optimal water rights to promote market-based trading is sort of low on the list of things I would change. I would get around to it one day, I suppose, if I were bored with my harem and the chef had failed to amuse. If things are going to be different, I'm going straight for command and control, with me as the command and controller. Fiat, motherfuckers! If imaginary different is an option, I see no reason to fuck around with middle ground.

More seriously, I am not very interested in imaginary different. There is enough in the complicated here and now to overwhelm all of the effort and attention I've got to give. Thought experiments about whether I would like a libertarian system if we didn't have our current laws and wealth distribution don't get me closer to my social and environmental goals. I do see virtue in rigorous thought about what a perfect system would look like, but that thought had better include a do-able path between here and there to keep my attention long. I used up my tolerance for vague talk about an ideal society when I lived in the hippie co-op.

**I thought this was telling. So little interest in how your place works?


Blogger Megan said...

Please, if you will. First sentence/paragraph, core belief underlying your feelings on libertarianism. Not your reasons, your emotions and their source (if you can). Please also, no one dispute these. I would love to see them expressed, so I want them to get respectful attention.

Second paragraph and on - whatever you wanted to say.

2:29 PM  
Anonymous sealion said...

I Am Libertarian Because: 1) It really bugs me when people who do not know me or my circumstances make decisions about what I may or may not do.

2) There are large, large parts of life which I believe the government has no business regulating.

3) I feel that libertarianism is the best available continuation of the classical-liberal ideals and political philosophy that formed the basis of the United States Constitution and the liberal movements throughout Europe in the 1800s.

3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pfft, I don't have emotions.

And that test was stupid.

How does the blinker in your car work?

How do the gear ratios on your bike work?

What's the magnetic declination where you live?

Is the brake line on your bike hydraulic or cable?

How does the microprocessor in your computer work?

How does the power come into your house, then get distributed?

What's the basic structure of the knot you use to tie your shoes?

Seriously, it's hardly telling. There's a hell of a lot to know, and anyone could make up a set up obscure questions that most people wouldn't be able to answer.

3:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

damn it, I didn't sign that.


3:53 PM  
Anonymous D said...

I wouldn't consider myself libertarian, do I get a pass? If so I want a pony. On the other hand I'll play by the devine M's rules and say I extend my belief from local control. The smallest and most local unit of government should control decisions that only apply to the local area. Extended down, I am in control of only one person, Me. If megan and I are in a 3-legged race together than it is us who make the decisions to not fall down. If we live in a community of people, it is all of us who should decide which days we can water grass on... etc. etc. on up the chain. Each group up/down is taken into account with respect to decisions. A community in upstate new york shouldn't really expect for me in colorado to dictate their use of water, since they get 10x more rain than me. And no old curmudgeons should really tell megan and me that we should grow up and not compete in a 3 legged race, if we want to.

How's that, good enough for an unstudied political philosophy?

So the reason I paid the toll to Tim the Enchanter above is a sideview... Human beings form governments whenever they have to come together for the common good. Even if it's only 2 crazy kids in love. If they cannot get together for that good, then they will not stay together. The question in my mind ISN'T why do libertarians think that Govt. isn't a force for good, rather at what level or size is it not a force for good. If there is NO level that can be good, than a libertarian must be a hermit... because interaction with other humans requires compromise and give/take. This is where government begins.
Second thing is to not lose what it presumed by people asking "But if it were totally different" they say, "wouldn't you prefer this?"... like in the Klamath. Because underneath this question applies to other situations, especially future situations that you can plan using failures from the past. Those kids out in the desert with a town that has water delivered by trucks that arent licensed for that. Ayup, the issue is what it is now. So how do you look at the future and see it coming? What can be done to change it? What will the various different philosophies think and say, and how can we make the right choice? I'll not claim any sorts of brains like Rodrik's teacher Avinash, but I believe that no line of questioning should be wasted. Sometimes people play devil's advocate for no real reason, sometimes it's even me doing that, but people can reveal a lot in just the asking. Sometimes they are just asking for retroactive punishment, true. I often reply 'we need to fix this now and worry who is to blame later...' but there is always the kernal of truth there...

I know that when you are blogging to ask/answer a question, and somebody heads down a tangent that my be imaginary, it can be frustrating. Opinions out of left field from people who can't possibly know the subtleties are like a gong in your ear... and yet it is those very same people who are often in government like congress, and are forced to choose anyway.
Seems like the only way to get around that is to ask to pass from the theoretical to what is physically true on the ground, and ask them educate themselves on the basics...

and with all that I'm just some guy in the ether, so YMMV ;)

4:01 PM  
Blogger Jake said...

I don't like being told what to do, and I feel that basic fairness requires me to then not tell other people what to do, even if I think that I'm much smarter and more qualified to make decisions about my life than they are about theirs.

It's pretty much that simple.

Clearly the maximalist version of this argument is screwy, but I don't think it's a bad default position in a precautionary-principle sort of way.

6:35 PM  
Blogger dcw said...

Two observations:

First, I don't think it's entirely fair to say that libertarianism imagines a radically different world. Certainly some limiting case of "pure libertarianism" looks rather foreign, but so does the limiting case of "pure democracy". Moreover, in many important ways the world has become a lot more liberatrian than it used to be. On the "social issues" side, we recognize a much larger realm of self-determination free from government interference than we used to (e.g. contraception, gay sex, heterodoxy). On the "economic issues" side, it's true that we have more micro-regulation of business processes (e.g. minimum wages, safety regulations), but it's also true that we have less outright government control of industries (e.g. communism, ma bell).

Second, there appears to me to an element of unprincipled sloppyness in non-libertarian thinking; perhaps a non-libertarian here can help me with this. Anyone who is not an authoritarian theocrat persumably believes there should be some realm of personal self-determination free of government control. For libertarians, the boundary of this realm is, in principle, nice and clear and sharp: any activities limited to informed, consenting adults. Gay sex clearly falls into this realm, as does sub-minimum-wage labor. Since the majority of non-libertarians favor government regulation of one of those and oppose government regulation of the other, those non-libertarians must be using some very different definition of the boundaries of that realm. And yet they do all seem to believe there is such a realm, because I see them invoking its existence when it suits their ends. So my question to the non-libertarians is this: how do you define that realm of self-determination that should be free of government control? Can you enunciate a clear principle that defines it, or do you not believe that it's important to have a clear definition?

6:57 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

One of my biggest peeves is having to follow a rule that doesn't make sense in my specific situation. The handy example would be if I had to pay for potable water to flush my toilets with. That would drive me crazy, if the potable water cost/availability was much different from that for non-potable water. It's for toilet flushing! I'm not going to drink it.

Then I generalize from there and say that I have the most information about my particular situation/needs/goals, so I'm in the best position to make decisions about things that affect me. But I start with the frustration from specific dumb/inappropriate rules, and then generalize. So I'd be surprised if someone suggested that my politics are rooted in some sort of abstract "wouldn't it be nice" wish-world. Maybe I'm focusing too much on the wrong concrete examples, but they certainly are concrete.

8:10 PM  
Blogger dcw said...

Oh, and to fufill our host's request:

I am a libertarian because my moral intuition about what interactions are acceptable (e.g. it's okay for A and B to trade freely, it's not okay for A to hold up B at the point of a gun) is much stronger than my moral intuition about what outcomes are acceptable (e.g. is it okay for A to end up richer than B?).

But I really think my comments above are much more interesting and substansive than this bit of self-analysis.

9:45 PM  
Anonymous Mike Jenkins said...

Beliefs: I don't want a perfect libertarian world, and don't believe one could exist. However, on most issues, people decide better than governments, whether they be dictators or democratic bureaucracies. Even in the areas that people do badly, governments generally do much worse. We need a government, but other than its core purpose, national and local defense, the hurdle we should use for giving it powers should be very high.

What else was I supposed to write about? Anyway, two points. "libertarians hold on to their priors so strongly that they seem impervious to evidence."? Yup, the 1/2 percent of Americans who consider themselves libertarian have a monopoly on this vice; I'd make a snarky comment about our host in this regard, but she would probably get upset and call me an asshole. And second, I truly believe that this country would be better off with a randomly chosen legislature than with myself as dictator. Yeah, I know you were basically kidding about fiat government Megan, but that is one very unpleasant characteristic of statists: they really don't know what they don't know.

10:02 PM  
Anonymous Dagon said...

I'll generally agree with the other posts as to the causes of my libertarian bent.

I'll go a bit further, though, and say that the core thing that makes me me is that I make decisions and experience consequences.

Reducing my range of decisions or insulating me from their effect deprives me of my humanity.

I likewise do my best to avoid demeaning others by removing their choices.

10:47 PM  
Blogger t.s. said...

Apropos of this thread, this is worthwhile.

6:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have libertarian leanings because I often disagree with the level of government involved. Most education and environmental issues should be local/state, not federal. Larger issues based on individual beliefs or impacting their rights to decide about their own health should not be in the realm of any government. Education is a great example. Some would choose a president for having a great education plan. I think the only path to good education lies in local involvement, with some assistance and guidance at the state level for communities that NEED it. A president with a plan means a new test for all students which means less time teaching curriculum the teacher wants to teach. To me, libertarianism is about using the proper tool for each problem society has. As you often point out with your water issues, sometimes you need a larger government regulation to balance the interests of different players. But as you've also pointed out, sometimes the federal government is going to be too large to find a solution that fits every state. For some, identifying with libertarianism can mean that you are frustrated with vague ideals of some that believe there is one answer for all situations, and NIMBY self-involvement of others.

8:05 AM  
Anonymous minneapolitan said...

Emotions/sources: I grew up in a profoundly New Deal family -- one side, from rural poverty, saw the benefits of moving up the class ladder via Federal programs that redistributed wealth to those who worked the hardest to create it; the other side, from the rural/urban lower-middle class saw those benefits, as well as the benefits of a safe, efficient society where bridges didn't fall down from lack of funding. So the "every man for himself, and devil take the hindmost" core of so-called "libertarian" "philosophy" really sticks in my craw as an attack on my people and our survival.
In terms of my own political development, as an actual anarchist, I have to regard the free-market hucksters who've expropriated the word "libertarian" as the worst kind of scoundrels. I was re-reading the beginning of "What Is Communist Anarchism?" by Alexander Berkman a month or two ago. Once you get past a few of the 19th C. constructions, the society he describes (at the height of the robber barons) is scarcely different in its underlying nature from the one we inhabit today. The work of millions of people, now and throughout history, goes into making your iPod, yet only a few thousand people (many of them who have done no work at all) are massively rewarded, and the rest of us get to sort through the dregs. Slavery is murder and property is theft. If you want to dominate me with markets, you are equally my enemy as if you were dominating me through force of arms.

The thing I notice about internet libertarians is that they're all awfully cagey about how they fit into the big picture. To hear their convoluted spiel, you'd think each one had burst fully formed from the brow of Ayn Rand, educated, nourished, housed, fed and clothed solely due to their own industry in the unrelenting struggle between Man and nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw. Never mind that most of them were born in publicly-funded hospitals, delivered by physicians educated at public expense, driven home on roads built with tax dollars, fed on government-subsidized food, educated at public schools, protected from fire and theft by public servants -- in short, they are 100% the product of the communities they come from. Now, I agree that many of the underpinnings of the society which has formed us are unfair, unsustainable and unpleasant. But ignoring the fact of their existence, as the vast majority of internet "libertarians" do for rhetorical purposes is just absurd. Comrades: If we are to create a society that improves upon this one, the first thing we must do is apprehend society as it is, and the second is to organize to change it in democratic, liberatory directions.

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been poor, and I'm still kinda poor, and I've known a lot of smart, interesting, educated, worthwhile people who weren't making a lot of money, and a number of seemingly worthless individuals who were wealthy. My experiences in life have led me to believe that society is not very fair or meritocratic, many of the wealthy and powerful get their positions through luck and greed and ruthlessness rather than through virtue or actual usefulness, and the poor and powerless both need and deserve a greater share of the wealth. Therefore, I'm in favor of a system that does a substantial amount of redistribution, while leaving in place some moderate incentives for hard work and innovation.

Or, to put that more succinctly: Life is deeply unfair, and I want a system that makes things as fair as possible without ruining the economy.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Underlying my libertarian beliefs is, almost certainly, an excessive amount of reading about frontier societies, both American west and sci-fi (see works of Robert Heinlein).

I prefer to see libertarianism as a framing philosophy; start with the assumption that the problem can be solved without government intervention; identify the source of problems with that assumption if it turns out to be wrong; attempt to address the problem with a solution that minimizes the costs of government involvement. I know that last line sounds silly; everybody wants to minimize costs, right? Fair enough, but I just want to see the true costs of regulation and bureaucracy accounted for when calculating that equation. From my point of view, those costs are very much underestimated currently.

I think the tendency of libertarians to argue with "if things were different" (which is one of my biggest annoyances with libertarians, especially the Libertarian Party), is caused by a misunderstanding about the purpose of their arguments. They think their job is to defend libertarianism as a political theory. Instead they should try to solve a particular problem at hand in an optimal fashion using libertarian principles. If they did that, I think people would feel more comfortable taking libertarians seriously.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Erik said...

I think the core belief that first brought me to libertarianism is that I think it is acceptable that people who make good choices should prosper and people who don't need not. Therefore it is unacceptable in my mind to take from people who made good choices to benefit those who make bad. I don't mind if people who make bad choices become, or remain, prosperous, good for them. I also feel strongly that if left alone, people who make good choices will prosper, eventually, so there is no need to take away from others to help them now.

That being said I want to point out that neither I, nor any true libertarian, would argue with the claim that government "can" do good. In fact, all libertarians I know believe government is necessary to live with other people. People who do not agree with these claims are anarchists, not libertarians.

The difference between what you mean when you say those words, and what I do is that I believe a great deal of that same good can be accomplished at least as well by other means, and that I acknowledge that government can also do a great deal of bad, which it should be prevented from doing.

There are some things which are necessary and good that the government will do better than any other institution. Examples for me are national defense, and the justice system to name a couple. I assume there are some things that the government does about as well the best non-government option. Not as positive about this category, but maybe things like roads, or police and fire services.

Then there are lots of things the government does worse than non-government options. Big ones here for me are education and environmental protection. A caveat to this is that the good alternatives do not always currently exist, but I would argue that if the government was not filling the role they would arrive in short order.

My last comment is that you are right, Megan, to believe that an ideal libertarian state cannot be established in the near future, or with ease, but that does not mean we should ignore better solutions to problems than the ones we currently have. If people continue to oppose what is wrong with the government, it will slowly improve (or at least not get worse, which seems to be its present course). We might not be abler to change the system which governs the Klamath river allocation (Not that its high on my priority list anyway), but there are other current laws, and soon to become laws, which could be changed for the better, and without much trouble.

2:00 AM  
Anonymous Thelonious_Nick said...

Wow, go out of town for a few days and miss all the good posts. Hopefully this one's not too old to be past its prime.

I'm probably not a very good libertarian, as I prefer incremental change to radical change and I do so like physical infrastructure (subways, bridges, etc.) that would almost never be built with private funds.

And yet, when I start thinking about it, man I get so irritated that I, a responsible citizen with a steady job and no criminal record, might not in some cases be able to do the following things that don't hurt other people and in fact aren't any of their damn business:

go a summer without mowing my yard
paint my house pink
have sex with somebody who wants to get paid or who wants to pay me
smoke a joint on Friday night after working hard all week
buy a cigar from Cuba
smoke a cigarette while I eat in a restaurant
buy booze on Sunday or after midnight
say whatever I want about a political candidate on TV within 30 days of an election
have sex with anyone who's willing to have sex with me and in whatever way we want
start my own low-powered radio station for my neighborhood
gamble on the Internets
gamble on college basketball championships
let my responsible teen-age child have a glass of wine with dinner
drive 80 miles per hour on a straight road under good weather conditions
go jogging naked
ride on a boat ride without wearing a lifevest
let my child ride a bicycle without a helmet
hire non-union labor to do work on my house
get an exemption from paying taxes for public schools because they teach too much bullshit and not enough Latin and Greek and I want to teach my kid at home
get a summer job that pays under minimum wage because I want to work there and don't care about the money
buy allergy medicine without a doctor's prescription even though I know exactly which medicine I need
buy cough medicine without signing a form
drink raw milk from a cow
try crack cocaine just once to see what it's like

Okay, even though I wouldn't do most of those things even if I could--why shouldn't I be able to do so?

7:31 AM  
Blogger Benquo said...

I was brought up as an ordinary American left-liberal: personal freedom was a matter of dignity and right. Then I read Ayn Rand's novels. My main takeaway from those books was that personal freedom includes economic freedom; that it is part of human dignity to provide for one's own livelihood (however indirectly), and that freedom is cheapened when it is an indulgence provided by society, rather than a natural right to use what you make.

All the formal arguments about liberty are necessary to justify that intuition, but don't make the same kind of sense without it.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Marc said...

My kids once asked me what their mom meant when she had referred to me as a "radical libertarian," and why that meant they had to be skeptical of my beliefs. I replied that libertarians basically believe that people should be free to do whatever they want so long as they don't harm others, and "radical" is a word that people apply to beliefs they don't agree with.

The roots of my libertarianism come from my minimalist attitudes. I just feel that people should be allowed to pursue their happiness with the fewest conditions possible imposed on them by force. Too many rules are just so confusing and, I feel, unnecessary.

Slightly off topic: My ex-wife and I, despite our feelings on the matter, were always careful not to bad-mouth each other with the kids. We each believed that doing so would only upset and confuse the kids and end up undermining our collective parental authority, which we understood as a "limited time offer." So I always smiled when I heard little things like "radical" libertarian which kind of skated along the fringes of our agreement. Now that our kids are bit older, they will acknowledge that their mom and I we were generally good about not speaking ill about the other, but their joke is that their mom would sometimes say, "Well, the thing about your dad is..." (e.g., radical libertarian) about as often as they heard me say, "Well, the thing about your mom is..."

9:46 PM  
Anonymous Nathan Zook said...

I too was out of town... ;)

I'm Religious Right with heavy libertarian leanings. (We're not that rare, btw.)

Besides my (Democrat) grandfather constantly complaining about government interference, what drove me libertarian was being poor. I have a pretty generous definition of poor--for a period of months, often did no know from where my next meal would come.

During this period, I came to the conclusion that there should be a property requirement to voting.

I also worked for 60% of minimum wage for a time, but when I DID work for minimum wage, my government made sure that 1/7th of my earnings were set aside for "my retirement"--and some for "the poor".

If anyone is from Rio Linda, I needed FOOD and HEAT. My long term ability to prepare for retirement was excellent, so I did NOT need to be "saving".

The later thing which pushed me this way was living in Austin, and the Clinton presidency. I absolutely wanted to minimize Janet Reno's abilities to abuse citizens.

I would expect that left-leaning individuals would have similar problems, but I don't recall seeing anyone cautioning against a bill on the basis that a Republican might come along later an abuse it.

7:15 AM  

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