On Fischer on libertarianism, or, How errors compound

I’ve seen a lot of attacks against libertarianism in highbrow media outlets in the last few years. I take this as a good sign overall, even if the attacks rarely if ever have anything convincing in them. I’m not just being partisan; I’d welcome a good critique. But so far I’ve been disappointed. My goal on this blog is not to defend libertarianism per se. I am a libertarian, and I think you should be too, but it’s really not my purpose here. I keep this blog as a sort of scratch pad for economics-related thinking.

However, I couldn’t resist commenting on Claude Fischer’s odd hit piece “Libertarianism is Very Strange”. Not so much for the misunderstanding of libertarianism, which is part of it, but for the strange lack of consistency and the economic error(s). The latter first. Fischer writes on the historically odd emphasis libertarians place on individualism:

For most of history, including Philadelphia, 1776, more humans were effectively property than free. Children, youth, women, slaves, and servants belonged to patriarchs; many patriarchs were themselves serfs to chiefs and lords. And selling oneself into slavery was routine for the poor in many societies. Most world cultures have treated the individual as a limb of the household, lineage, or tribe. We moderns abhor the idea of punishing the brother or child of a wrongdoer, but in many cultures collective punishment makes perfect sense, for each person is just part of the whole. [emphasis added]

That’s one way to look at the rationale behind collective punishment, but not a very good one. Why else might other, mainly earlier societies use collective punishment?

This is a law & economics question. The answer is not that “each person is just part of the whole” but that when resources for law enforcement are very limited, it is a more efficient way to get people to modify their behaviors than punishing only the lawbreaker. By making my family liable for the crimes I might commit, the costs of monitoring me shift from the authorities to my family, i.e. from the high-cost observer to the low-cost observer. With greater knowledge of what I’m doing, they’re more likely to nip my criminal impulses in the bud than some distant, near-sighted authority. You’ll notice that collective punishment tends to disappear as societies become wealthier and can thereby support more capable law enforcement, as well as allowing them to rely less and less on their families, clans, or communities and more and more on the impersonal economy.

In general, this is a problem throughout the piece. Sociological analysis is one way to understand the world, and through this lens the best explanation might seem to be in how the members of society conceive of themselves. Economic analysis is another, and its evolutionary logic does a much better job of explaining this phenomenon without having to read minds. And it doesn’t rely on society being logically prior to individuals, which is good because there is no singular entity that is society. Society is a collection of individuals. Connected and interdependent in many complicated ways though they may be, only they think, choose, act, etc.

Later in the piece, Fischer makes another claim:

Americans’ life expectancy, health, physical security, and living standards soared in the 20th century—not, however, because of the march of libertarianism, as Domenech insinuates, but in great measure because of the welfare state and of regulation of food, medicine, water, work safety, pollution, and so on. Personal liberty itself has also improved in the last century, with civil rights for minorities and women and broader guarantees of civil liberties. These advances, too, largely developed not against government but with it.

A lot of people believe this in full or in part, including economists. But there are so many other factors involved that this claim is misleading in its oversimplification. Why didn’t the regulatory era happen much sooner? Put differently, why didn’t it happen until social product and tax revenues were high enough to sustain it? If some European monarch had tried to implement a modern-looking regulatory system in the late Middle Ages, how would it have gone?

The field of public choice is full of case studies in which government intervention into the economy or society more broadly have negative social benefits, and they almost always have some high-sounding purpose. It may be the case that some of these interventions were socially beneficial, sure. But it also may be the case that technological progress would have taken us even further than it has if it were not for governments intervening on behalf of powerful interests. Showing a blithe disregard for a century and more of incredible technological progress is easier than wading in to separate the helpful from the unhelpful and seeing what the balance is. You don’t have to be a libertarian to see that such a gross oversimplification is irresponsible at best.

My broader takeaway is Fischer’s inconsistency. Libertarianism is silly because it’s ahistorical—a factual claim I would dispute in a longer post, but will let slide here—but somehow this doesn’t apply to, say, all other political philosophy ever? Rawls does not suggest that the original position behind the veil of ignorance is realistic. Hobbes does not suggest that we agreed to an absolute monarch to protect us from each other. What Fischer criticizes Nozick for is what political philosophers have been doing for quite a while, including political philosophers Fischer probably likes.

Moreover, isn’t it good to have goals? The past was awful in a million ways. Isn’t it good to envision a society that is awful in as few of them as possible? And shouldn’t we incorporate economics into it so that we can be sure our means can accomplish our ends and our best intentions don’t run off the rails?

Most of the attacks against libertarianism that I mentioned above have been poorly done hit pieces that we’ll look back on one day and laugh at. Fischer is no hack, but he doesn’t do much better. In attacking libertarianism he makes other errors, and these undermine his case more than his political priors.


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