Libertarian Ideal Theory

— I liked Tyler Cowen’s Volokh post on Dan Klein’s theory of “The People’s Romance.” Here’s most of it:

Klein writes from a libertarian point of view, asking why people are so attached to government, even when the record of government in an area is a poor one. He suggests that the desire to be part of a collective movement motivates much support for government, that the state is uniquely suited to satisfy such collectivist urges, and that we should resist our psychological tendencies in this direction. This essay is part of Klein’s broader research program of developing a sociology and psychology of why libertarian ideas have not met with greater success. Indeed for any libertarian this should be a central question. I find Klein and Jeffrey Friedman (of Critical Review) to be the two most important thinkers on this topic.

While I consider myself a “small l” libertarian, my perspective differs from Klein’s in a number of ways. For instance I tend to take “The People’s Romance” as a constraint to a greater extent than does Klein. I see politics as a question of trading in one “mythology” for another, but a mythology of some kind is always necessary. This will constrain our ability to attain superior solutions, yet it is a constraint that typically receives little attention from economists. On net, I suspect that our American version of The People’s Romance does more to support liberty than damage it. I wonder whether bad policies are often not the price of our highly valuable macro-myths. Klein and I discuss these topics frequently, read his whole essay to see his take on what has gone wrong in Western societies.

I think Tyler is right that our mythologizing is more of constraint on political and economic change (and on good theorizing) than many assume. Libertarians tend to be infatuated with what Rawls called “ideal theory,” with conjuring pictures of the best society in abstraction from the “noise” of historical and sociological contingency. (The exchange in the new not-yet-online Reason between Epstein, Barnett, and Friedman brought this home to me. [Addendum: Oh, it’s here.]) But, rather like Rawlsian liberals, libertarians often mistake fairly indelible features of social reality for contingencies, thereby overshooting anything that might serve as a feasible ideal. The result is a kind of unwitting utopian theorizing. But no one should be convinced that anything approximating a Nozickian or Randian minimal state, much less, Rothbardian anarchocapitalism, is worth taking seriously unless it can be shown that these theories are compatible with what we know about history and social psychology. Debating whether voluntary mechanisms can or cannot solve all the important collective action problems, or whether there could be a positive net benefit to empowering the state to provide for public goods, given public choice assumptions, is not totally unlike arguing about whether it is possible for the People’s Revolution to draw its energy directly from an agricultural rather than an industrial underclass.

Much libertarian ideal theory proceeds on something like the assumption of a entire society of convinced libertarians (or at least the weaker assumption that it is possible to come to the kind of consensus necessary to install a libertarian constitution or basic structure). But this is the same mistake, more or less, that Rawls recognizes he made in Theory of Justice in basing the argument for the stability of “justice as fairness” on the assumption of a fairly universally shared quasi-Kantian conception of personhood. The fact of pluralism is a fact indeed. One of Rawls’s most valuable insights is that there is no way of securing homogeneity of fundamental moral world views in a liberal society. Any mechanism likely to produce this kind of thoroughgoing consensus would be coercive and thus illiberal. So we’ve got to start with the assumption of pluralism. One can dream of an ideal technology of persuasion that would enable voluntary mass conversion. But this is fanciful, too. And there is no reason to believe that any such technology could be sprung on a society and bring about happy consensus on libertarian essentials before others could also begin using the technology to inculcate contrary ideals.

If libertarian ideals are to become more broadly accepted, it may be in part because of more savvy on the part of libertarians in intentionally undermining widespread collectivist impulses. (Don’t stop donating to IHS.) But I think it is more likely that success in this direction, insofar as there is any, will have more to do with the amelioration of the social and economic conditions that have fueled collectivist ideals. In this sense, we’ve got to already be libertarian enough for the dialectic between socio-economic conditions and belief systems to produce more libertarianism. Still, much of the impulse toward collectivism, and toward positing superspecial agentive powers to abstractions like the state, probably runs pretty deep in human psychology, and there is no ameliorating that, short of genetic re-engineering.

So what we need is a theory of just how libertarian a particular society could possibly get, given human psychology, the set of social and economic relations, the available mechanisms of persuasion, and the set of belief systems or “macro mythologies”, at a given time, plus the dynamics that govern changes in these things. My guess is that for US society starting today, it’s possible to get significantly more libertarian, but not radically more libertarian. What might that society look like?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center