Back in Amerikkka

I've returned from Canadia. Cato U was a great time, and it seems that my talk was well-received. Quebec City is incredibly quaint. I found the Quebecois rather sweet, defying expectations.
I met a lot of great folks at the seminar, but I think my favorite new acquaintance may be Monte Solberg, a Conservative Party MP from Alberta, who, besides giving a very rousing talk (“Long live a free Canda!”), bought a poor semi-employed quasi-grad student a few beers. A man I'd feel good voting for! Take heed Medicine Hat.
The main news in Canada was, well, the American election. The CBC coverage was amusing, a bit like a CNN who had heard of Republicans in rather the way Margaret Mead readers have heard of Samoans. Being Canadian, the newscasters were clearly putting in a solid effort at fairness, but, being Canadian, they seemed to be simply baffled and amazed by the fact that Bush could very well win again. Well, we'll see.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

19 thoughts

  1. “I am interested in promoting a tendency of thought and a set of policy reforms that I think will, as a matter of fact, make people better off.”
    Then you aren’t really a libertarian at all. You are a leftish utilitarian who happens to be economically literate (unlike most leftish utilitarians).

  2. Kevin, So then neither Mises nor Hayek nor Friedman were libertarians. I believe, like all of them, the liberty is valuable primarily for its effects on human well-being. Libertarianism is not the view that liberty is valuable for its own sake and always trumps competing values. Some libertarians think that, and they’re wrong.

  3. Why say “libertarianism is not” rather than “libertarianism is not necessarily”? Why exclude from your libertarian tent those of us who believe that
    (a) liberty *is* valuable for its own sake, in part because of the morally suspect nature of interpersonal utility comparisons
    (b) at least some level of liberty is morally mandated as a side-constraint, rather than simply being an input to the great utility objective function?
    That seems at least as bad as the exclusion you (rightly) complain about. IMHO the dialogue between deontologists and consequentialists is one of the things that makes libertarianism such a vibrant and productive intellectual movement; it is, if you will, a process of reflective equilibrium carried out between rather than within people. We’d be worse off without Hayek but also without Rothbard.

    1. Nicholas, Sure. Read what I said again. I obviously did not “exclude” anyone from the libertarian tent.
      I am no utilitarian. I’m some kind of contractarian.
      I do think liberty is valuable for its own sake. It’s just not the most important value. And it’s hard to see how the suspect nature of interpersonal utility comparisons bears on the intrinsic value of liberty. Aren’t these entirely logically independent?

  4. “Kevin, So then neither Mises nor Hayek nor Friedman were libertarians. ”
    Well I always assumed they supported a safety net mainly as a way of preventing frustrated poorer people from extorting more tribute through non-government means (stealing, revolution, etc.).
    I just think that the safety net should be non-compulsory and provided by nice, bleeding heart types like you. (and me)

  5. I think I’m with Nicholas on this one, or at least I don’t see how liberty and the uniqueness of an individual’s perception of utility are completely independent. What would be the value of one without the other?

    1. Atlas 1882, if you think that liberty has a value for itself and over other considerations, even if was possible to increase total social utility violating individual liberty, you should be against it.
      I think a good test to discover if someone is pro or against something on its own sake or because of undesirable consequences is to question if they would change their position if the consequences were others.
      For example, if someone is against civil gun ownership because it raises the sum of murders on a given society, ask him/her if he/she would favor the incentive of gun ownership if the murders fall with this policy. Of course, other questions may be involved, but I think it’s a good start.

  6. I’m not impressed with the idea of the “social contract”. Why does my living within certain arbitrary boundaries (the same country or the same planet, it doesn’t matter) entitle someone else to that which is mine? Property rights are absolute, or they aren’t rights, are they? They would simply be privileges, which can be removed by the powerful at will.

  7. “Why does my living within certain arbitrary boundaries . . . entitle someone else to that which is mine?”
    Geez! Last time I looked a private-owning landlord is just as entitled some to my property (rent) for me to occupy his apartment. I don’t get why Libertarians get into a stink about governments and social contracts – if the government is the primary landowner then it get the right to say what goes on and what amounts to payment. Hardcore anarcho-Libertaiians want primary landowners to individuals and so how is that going to be any different? I pay rent to a private landowner, they extract rent, they get to make rules on what I can and can’t do, if I don’t like it I leave it, and, AND, if I don’t like and use force against the owner or refuse payment the private landowner can use (retalitory) force to extract payment or punish me. So how is there any real difference?

    1. if the government is the primary landowner then it get the right to say what goes on and what amounts to payment.
      Absolutely correct. If the government is the rightful, ultimate landowner. But it isn’t. So the rest of your argument doesn’t follow.
      Further, without the coercive monopoly that governments enjoy, it is much more difficult to centralize power and land ownership. This is where Kevin’s response enters the picture. With thousands of competing land owners as opposed to a single central monopoly, the use of Exit as a check on power is much greater than the use of Voice (i.e. elections).

  8. @Gil: The difference is that I don’t respect the claims of the people in washington that they own all the land under our feet. Furthermore, under private landowners, it is a simple process to move somewhere else, whereas under the state system, there are huge barriers to moving somewhere else.

  9. “under private landowners, it is a simple process to move somewhere else”
    You can’t prove that because people are forbidden from owning land via the government. How do we know that private landowners would stay nice and small? How would we know the ‘leave it’ argument would be easy because ‘freedom to leave’ doesn’t equate to ‘freedom to arrive’. You’re free to emigrate but you’re not free to immigrate. Since landowners are governments supposing private landowners would be nice and dandy is mere speculation especially if private landowners are going to be nice guys and not use ‘force&fraud’. And even then what type of ‘force&fraud’ is invalid to a landowner? A tenant is but a guest on a landowner’s land and what if one day for no obvious reason the landowner rants and raves “get the hell off my land or else!”? The tenant has now been declared a trespasser and the landowner is free to force the ex-tenant off the land if the ex-tenant doesn’t show any sign of leaving. The only ‘force&fraud’ not technically allowable to a private landowners is when he leaves his land and is now on someone else’s. Quite it’s starting to sound the same as to what government already do.

  10. If Will Wilkinson doesn’t exclude people from the libertarian tent, the meaning of the word libertarian becomes uselessly diffuse.
    Hayek apparently made lots of disclaimers to provide plausible deniability to his harsh libertarian conservatism. But they’re all unfunded mandates as far as libertarians are concerned, until the libertarians stop shrieking “taxation is theft!”

  11. I take Kevin’s point that ideally all welfare should come from voluntary contributions, but it also seems to be that in the meantime we’d be better off with a negative income tax and Earned Income Tax Credit if in return all of the other programs of the welfare state were abolished, i.e. Social Security, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamps, industrial plants required to say “Mother, may I?” before they shut down, etc. etc.
    Will, are you going to write a liberaltarian book to flesh out your vision? Where would health care look like under a liberaltarian regime?

  12. Oops, I meant to say “What would health care look like?” and “It seems to me” …. I wish comments could be edited after posting. Sorry.

  13. Tom, Here’s my dream for health care.
    Blast from the past. I had forgotten it, but that was a truly awesome post. Deregulation, direct monetary subsidy and computer science, sounds like a good cocktail to me.

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