Wednesday, January 1, 2020

(Adjective) Libertarianism

Libertarianism consists of many different ideas, and is clearly in need of some adjectives. Tyler Cowen, in an interesting new-Year's reflection, offers "State-Capacity Libertarianism."  The guts of it is, I think, that the State must exist, and do competently and effectively its crucial tasks.

The best bit, I think:
5. Many of the failures of today’s America are failures of excess regulation, but many others are failures of state capacity.  Our governments cannot address climate change, much improve K-12 education, fix traffic congestion, or improve the quality of their discretionary spending.  Much of our physical infrastructure is stagnant or declining in quality.  I favor much more immigration, nonetheless I think our government needs clear standards for who cannot get in, who will be forced to leave, and a workable court system to back all that up and today we do not have that either.
A nice observation on the left:
9. State Capacity Libertarians are more likely to have positive views of infrastructure, science subsidies, nuclear power (requires state support!), and space programs than are mainstream libertarians or modern Democrats.  Modern Democrats often claim to favor those items, and sincerely in my view, but de facto they are very willing to sacrifice them for redistribution, egalitarian and fairness concerns, mood affiliation, and serving traditional Democratic interest groups.  For instance, modern Democrats have run New York for some time now, and they’ve done a terrible job building and fixing things.  Nor are Democrats doing much to boost nuclear power as a partial solution to climate change, if anything the contrary.
I don't see just why nuclear power needs "state support," rather than a clear workable set of safety regulations that are not excuses for anyone to stop any project.  Democrats have also run California for some time now, and are apparently trying to see just how quickly the golden goose can be convinced to pack up and move to Nevada. In a show of bipartisanship Tyler might have added just how quickly small-government, free-market, individual-liberty local-government philosophies evaporate among many Republicans when inconvenient.

Another good but flawed, I think, observation
2. Earlier in history, a strong state was necessary to back the formation of capitalism and also to protect individual rights (do read Koyama and Johnson on state capacity).  Strong states remain necessary to maintain and extend capitalism and markets.  This includes keeping China at bay abroad and keeping elections free from foreign interference, as well as developing effective laws and regulations for intangible capital, intellectual property, and the new world of the internet.  (If you’ve read my other works, you will know this is not a call for massive regulation of Big Tech.)
I agree with the principles, but "keeping China at bay" seems like a poor goal for our foreign policy, "foreign interference" seems to me vastly overblown compared to domestic interference. The decay of rule of law and property rights seems vastly more important.

While I like the basic idea, I think "State Capacity" is a poor adjective because it isn't that self-explanatory. Libertarians have awful marketing skills, as evidenced by the fact that such demonstrably correct ideas have so little traction.

Adjectives I like in front of "libertarian" include constitutional, rule-of-law, practical, empirical, globalist. Too often though adjectives like these just define a set of ideas as antitheses of their opposites.

Update: Like a commenter, I like the adjective "conservative" appended to Libertarian as well, in the sense that we live on ages of legal and social development that should be respected for encoding a lot of wisdom, and "conserved."


  1. "Libertarians have awful marketing skills." This is one of our central problems. As Jonathan Haidt has demonstrated, libertarians are much more rational than the typical person. But as Bryan Caplan points out, politics is inherently irrational. One of the reasons we consistently punch below our weight.

  2. Adjective-phrases I like for libertarian, are "moderate libertarian" or "conservative libertarian." Social conservatism always struck me as authoritarianism with a cross.

    I worked at The Heritage Foundation for a few years and everyone there was a "Conservative" (same label as UK political party). The adjective became a noun. I hid behind the phrase "conservative libertarian."

    As for "modern" [feudal, tribal] "liberals" today, we should call them "Social Democrats," which is the label in Europe for their Fabian program.

  3. I myself use the term "soft" libertarianism, but I agree, there needs to be a better term for libertarianism as too many people associate it with right wing heartlessness or indifference to the poor.

  4. I’ve always rejected libertarianism conceptually because humans are fundamentally social beings; the opposition between the state and individual freedom, and even the possibility of escape from coercive social institutions, strike me as incoherent. Pre-/non-state societies typically have strong social controls, enforced by a variety of sanctions ranging from mockery and shaming to capital punishment and ostracism (tantamount to a death sentence). But I’m strongly inclined to pragmatic or empirical libertarianism; the state has a role to play, but it is clear, for reasons that are quite well understood, that it is playing a much bigger role than is necessary.

    1. "I’ve always rejected libertarianism conceptually because humans are fundamentally social beings;"

      Libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism embrace that reality. They simply reject the idea that a non-productive elite needs to be in charge deciding with impunity how the individual is to run his life, how much of his justly owned property is his to keep, and who lives or dies...

  5. Common sense Libertarian would be best label; after all, stripped away of all mathematical formulation seen in economics, most of life can be boiled down to simple commonsensical principles.

    1. I never like anyone claiming common sense is on their side. It just comes across as an assertion that anyone who disagrees is denying common sense, which is rarely going to persuade them.

      I describe myself as libertarian-ish. I think things could do with moving in a more libertarian direction, but I'm not sure how far. "Pragmatic more than principled" libertarian is the slightly longer version.

  6. How is rule of law different from regulation?

    1. Rule of law usually means setting and enforcing clear, transparent, laws designed to protect property rights, enforce contracts, and introduce trust and security into economic transactions. These laws are universally applied, not specific to any one type of transactions, and are not designed to affect the supply or demand of any specific market.

      Regulation on the other hand usually implies designing specific laws for a given market. The objective of regulation is for the government to control the supply or demand of that market.

    2. Have you looked at how regulations in the US work?
      Take for example the SEC:
      1) The rules are vast and confusing.
      2) It is more important not to anger the regulators than comply woth the laws.
      3) is common practice to consult the SEC if things are OK.
      4) Selective enforcement is done regularly.

      Basically, there are *guidelines*, not rules, and it is more important to stay with the SEC good graces they obey the law.
      The final arbiters are the courts, but just handling legal action with the SEC is so expensive, they have effectively veto on what can be done.

    3. Law is discovered over time through social interactions and judicial history. It has an organic nature, arising from the people up, not the government down. Modern "liberal" governments ironically were set up to enforce the laws discovered by the people in their social interactions over time.

      Legislation, regulation and other forms of "positive law" are the creations of government entities such as parliaments and legislatures. They are simply a means of privilege peddling by those who have power to those who wish to buy that power...

    4. '... social interactions and judicial history ...' tell that to the colonized people and women. Without the power of liberal govt we would still be in feudal depravity!

  7. I like the combination "pragmatic conservative". --E4

    1. Well...should that be, "libertarian when convenient and beneficial to me."

      There is actually a serious and practical cause libertarians could devote themselves to, with huge upsides, and that is ending property zoning, domestically and globally.

      Where you have property zoning, you have property owners and financiers gaining control of supply. And then sky-high economic rents in the form of property-rents, as in Hong Kong, S. Korea, the West Coast of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, NZ and so on.

      The near total decriminalization of street-vending, sidewalk-vending, truck-vending and so on is another idea libertarians are loath to discuss.

      Tyler Cowen is a smart guy, but his libertarian post was disappointing. More evidence of, "There are no atheists in foxholes, and there are no libertarians when neighborhood property zoning is under review."

      But hey, let's get rid of the minimum wage and rent control!

  8. Alexander Hamilton's political philosophy had many of the elements and more that Tyler Cowan asserts for his "state capacity libertarianism".

    Have we really advanced from the 18th Century philosophers and political thinkers in our forms and theories of political organization and political economy? I am skeptical of any assertion that states that we have.

  9. Are Libertarians poor marketers of their philosophy? I suspect a different definition of property rights exists for Democrats. Personal anecdote.I recently said to a former liberal friend...emphasis on former...I am not duty bound to provide for another person. Rather, I choose to be charitable but won't be coerced. He became enraged, argued and threatened to strike me. His position; Confiscation of wealth and property are justifiable if sanctioned by law. In a manner of speaking, legal plunder.

    1. Threatened to hit you...? I've had my share of convos that led to blood boiling rage, but never physical violence.

  10. We can stick with classical liberalism without having to invent new terms. Hayek spent much of his life trying to reconstruct it. What comes out is that the State can do what it wishes as a service state [welfare state], so long as coercion is not allowed except in taxation for financing public goods.

    Good enough for me.


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