More Political Libertarianism

I'm happy and flattered to see that Randy Barnett of The Volokh Conspiracy has linked to and quoted approvingly from my TCS piece.
Judging from the comments thread at TCS, it seems that I failed to adequately convey that political libertarianism is by no means an amoral theory. Political libertarianism assumes that a peaceful, stable, fair, extended social network of mutually advantageous cooperation — liberal order — is, if not morally good in itself, at least good as a means to other moral ends. The point, however, is that people with different commitments can support a liberal order, and can account for the moral value of the order in different ways. When you live in a large, incredibly pluralistic society like ours, the problem of how we all can live together, despite our differences, is a serious problem no matter what you happen to believe. A minimal set of social principles that accomodates the broadest array of commitments and worldviews can be seen by all sorts of people as the best solution to that problem.
This also does not imply that comprehensive justificatory strategies are false. Suppose, say, Ayn Rand is right. Then Ayn Rand is right. But the probability that everyone comes to agree with Ayn Rand is, well, zero, give or take. (The probability that the people who claim to agree with Ayn Rand will come to agree with each other is probably no better.) Whatever the correct comprehensive theory is, it's probably never going to be the case that everyone believes it. An authoritarian order can probably coerce agreement, to an extent, by restricting freedom of thought, speech, and inquiry. But that's not the kind of society we want. And a small, homogenous community, a group of Hutterhites, for example, might share a common conception of the good. But we're talking about a huge, diverse society.
So, one might arrive at the one true theory of the good, and even do a bang up job of spreading the word, but still be swamped by Babelian pluralism. The problem simply isn't how to get everyone to agree on fundamentals, because it's a problem that won't get solved in a big, free society. What we're left with is a sort of engineering problem. What terms of association, what social principles, can accomodate all these people, and all these diverse commitments, in a manner (almost) everyone has reason to affirm. The hypothesis is that political libertarianism is the best solution to the engineering problem.
Now, I'm by no means sure that this hypothesis is correct, or even exactly what political libertarianism entails (and thus what the hypothesis really is). I think I'd just want to call my own view liberal minimalism. I'm receptive to the idea that some small-scale redistribution might be a condition for stable liberal order, putting me in the company of Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Loren Lomasky. While people tend to identify these thinkers as libertarian, people also tend to think libertarianism by nature rules out redistribution. So I'm not quite sure what to call myself, not that it matters much.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

27 thoughts

  1. “Eating locally and seasonally keeps more of the food dollar in the local economy.”
    I’ll believe this is a serious issue when I encounter a farmer who refuses to sell to people from far away, as that would take dollars out of their local economies.

  2. This issue is the new bugbear of, it seems, every college student. Like you Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics has been talking about the flawed locavore movement and taking flak because of it.
    I think my favorite comment comes from the comments at Marketplace: “But sorry: Poor people do not get richer by doing business with rich people. They get richer by making more than they spend to live on; just like anyone else. ” Brilliant!

    1. Oh my. And thus the reason for the complaint from my hosting service.

  3. The idea of local food is one of my annoyances, because I think the environmental benefits are overhyped, but I wonder about your analogies. For any good music you’re listening to, you can’t get a comparable product without accruing a lot of “music miles” (a similar reason for me not to obsess over local food–neither fish sauce nor belacan are made around here). In the case of laptops, I was under the impression that the comparative advantage of chinese labor makes a big difference to the price of the good. Locally grown food needn’t be that expensive in a lot of places.
    Lastly, it’s worth noting that most people are likely to have more of their carbon footprint coming from food than either laptops or music groups. So food is a good place to look for ways to reduce carbon emissions. There is more to the logic of “locavores” than I think you’re making it sound like here.

  4. “…refusal to trade beyond local bounds will leave the local economy poorer…”
    Unless there’s a supply disruption. Then those yokels look pretty damn smart.
    Comparative advantage assumes that the cost of trade/transport is low and discounts the value of local/regional resilience. 6000 mile supply lines and “just out of stock”…er…”just in time” inventories may be economically efficient under current conditions, but even Ricardo might admit that a little insurance can be a prudent investment, no?

    1. Unless there’s a supply disruption. Then those yokels look pretty damn smart.
      Unless it’s a local supply disruption. Then those yokels look pretty damn stupid.
      If you are dependent only on your local area, then you are very vulnerable to any supply disruptions in that area. If you can bring goods in from anywhere within 6000 miles, then if one of the areas within 6000 miles has a disruption another area within those 6000 miles can pick up the slack. Australia has been having a drought for the last few years which has massively reduced farm production, but there’s no shortage of food in Australia because Australians can import food from the rest of the world.
      If you want a little insurance, then go global, not local. Ships can be re-routed far faster than new crops can be grown if the locusts ate all this one.

      1. Your rejoinder would be super awesome if I had said that the yokels should rely solely upon local sources. It’s inconvenient for you that that’s not what I said.
        Also, transportation disruption is functionally equivalent to a fundamental supply disruption and it renders the availability of other 6000 mile distant substitutes irrelevant.
        I’m sorry that the utterly banal point that a certain amount of redundancy greatly improves reliability enrages you so, but it does not follow that people who understand this are stupid.

  5. The funniest part of the whole thing, to me anyway, is the arbitrary nature of “local”. Once upon a time it was “Made in the USA” before that wasn’t good enough. Now you have to buy at the state level, or within a city, which is the ultimate. But why stop there? Why not “buy north side of town”, or “south-east quadrant”? And of course the dude who grows his own tomatoes and his own ipod wins. That’s my goal “localist consumer of all”. To do it, I am going to define “local” as “the Earth”. That way I can rock the lingo and have the largest basket of goods available.

  6. DMontieth, I am now at a loss as to what you were intending to say. Do you want people to rely on locally-grown food or not? If you do, then people are vulnerable to local disruptions. If you don’t, then people are vulnerable to transport disruptions. Did you possibly mean to call for a super-redundant system, in which we grow all our own food locally and also, simultaneously, maintain the ability to import it all in from far away?
    I thank you for the information that I am stupid and easily enraged. I also thank you for the compliment on my reply. Could I please ask you to do me the further kindness, considering my obvious disabilities, of being more precise about what you are trying to say?
    Then perhaps I can make a reply that you will find is super awesome, without needing to qualify it.
    Also, transportation disruption is functionally equivalent to a fundamental supply disruption and it renders the availability of other 6000 mile distant substitutes irrelevant.
    I am rather surprised that, given your opinion about my mental state, you say this without further explanation. I am afraid my weak, easily enraged, mind fails to see how a transport disruption is functionally equivalent to a fundamental supply disruption. To me, the striking difference between the two is that transport disruptions are more easily fixed, while if you lose your local supply of food, you need to wait at least an entire growing cycle until you get more, and in my part of the world that is a year. And, if the thing that disrupted this growing cycle is still around next growing cycle then there’s another year to go hungry for. My poor, limited, mind is stuck on the point that Australia has been in a drought for 6 years, and I can’t think of anywhere in modern times being cut off to food imports for 6 years.
    I look forward to your further diagnoses of my delapidated mental condition in your reply. It is always a pleasure to run across people who are happy to not merely debate some policy point, but also to provide free psychiatric diagnoses simultaneously.

  7. “Eating local” is fine and dandy to ensure freshness (and indeed, fresh and local is nearly the only way to get heirloom or specialty breeds of plants that aren’t bred to last in shipping), if there’s a sufficient local source and that matters more than other factors.
    As a way to “grow the local economy” or “reduce carbon footprint” it is, indeed, bollocks.
    (Not to mention, for the environmentalist or world-poverty-concerned types, if nobody eats cheap imported food, that destroys the ag market in the third world, thus leaving the farmers poorer and ensuring less food is produced there [since the local market can’t pay as much as first-worlders, even after shipping overhead – that’s why it’s exported in the first place – even aside from the lack of a sufficient local market for things like cocoa].
    Poorer people can’t afford niceties like environmental protections, which is why the first world has them and the third world doesn’t.
    So “eat locally”, the way the majority of its proponents put it forth, ends up harming both the global environment and poor farmers in the third world [and by extension the rest of the population there].
    Good job!)

  8. Hi,
    Economic arguments by locovores are often misguided, but those aren’t the most important arguments. Other things being equal, I like knowing the farmers who grow my vegetables — it gives me a better sense of how long it’s been since the produce was picked, the conditions of production, etc. I also feel better about knowing about the conditions of factories where my computers are made and my shirts are sewn, because moral preferences help drive my economic choices. This preference is particularly prevalent when it comes to health issues. People want to know that kids toys are safe. Or when it comes to health, while I’m pretty indifferent as to whether my mangos come from Haiti, Taiwan, India, or Indonesia, there are certain products (unpasteurized cheese is an example) that I’d pretty much only eat if I know exactly who’s making it.
    In my neighborhood, the most visible manifestation of the movement is a series of small, weekly markets. That means more and better choices and increased competition — surely you can get behind that.

    1. All of your concerns are valid, but that doesn’t require that the government become the regulator of all said concerns. If you want information on the origins of the products you purchase than by all means seek that out. Just don’t force the rest of us to do the same. All of the information you want to know will increase the cost to consumers and I don’t want my food prices to increase.
      As for you final claim, sure, competition is always good and a libertarian is never going to argue that local food or local farmer’s markets should be banned. The issue with locavores is that they are making the moral and, eventually, the legal case for locally grown food. The libertarian and other critic of local food is arguing that local food is not a realistic goal and would impede choice in what a person could buy.
      If you want to shop at a local market and pay higher prices for less selection, then by all means do it. Just don’t punish other people who don’t want that.

      1. I didn’t mean to claim that the government should require locally grown food. I don’t know of anybody who makes that claim (but I don’t pay much attention to locovores in general, so who knows). What I do know is that in my area, there were significant regulatory impediments to greenmarkets, and the activism of nutty-hippie-organic-farmer types to overcome those impediments. As far as I know, there’s been no equivalent movement for legal changes that would “punish other people who don’t want” to eat at markets. Instead, certain products have become available that were not previously available. If we are going to criticize the hypothetical big-bad-statist consequences of locovore thinking, it seems to me that I should first acknowledge that to date, the consequences of locovore activism in my neighborhood have been quite the opposite. Perhaps it’s different in other places, but here I don’t “pay more for less selection” — rather, I’m able to shop at a number of different places, and I will pay a premium for products that I can readily discern that they taste better, the same way I’ll pay more for a steak at a fancy restaurant than a burger at McDonald’s. Thus far, it all appears to me quite rational. If it weren’t, I doubt the markets would be economically viable.

  9. I can agree with all that. I don’t think there should be any limit to the availability of local/organic/whatever products. I don’t personally have any desire to purchase such items and indeed I would argue that, despite my girlfriend’s parents being organic farmers, that organic food is going the wrong direction and in some cases inmoral. However, that is why we can agree on the freedom of choice.

  10. since there is nothing like a free market in food production how can we begin to guess at the what the optimal amount of food grown, bought and purchased locally ought to be?

  11. The difference is that you don’t buy a new laptop every day. The amount of food that is imported is a whole order of magnitude different.

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