On the Libertarian Vice

I find most of the responses to Tyler's provocative “libertarian vice” post very stimulating, but I find the prevailing defensiveness pretty disappointing. This is 1/2 Tyler's fault for making it sound like the vice—assuming that government quality is fixed and low—is essential to libertarianism, which it isn't. Indeed, a quite widespread understanding of Rand-Rothbard-Nozick rights libertarianism doesn't even require the premise that voluntary price-coordinated action is generally more effective than state coercion. Rights are normatively binding deontic restrictions whose authority and force does not wait on the outcome of an empirical comparison of the consequences of alternative institutional arrangements. (I think this is view incorrect, both in fact, and as a reading of everyone but maybe Rothbard; the point is that this is the catechism of High Church axiom of non-coercion libertarianism.)  
It is, however, 1/2 the commentators fault for not directly conceding that the libertarian vice is indeed a widespread libertarian vice. Alex and Glen: You protest too much! It is exceedingly similar to, if not the same thing as, what I call the “fallacy of asymmetric idealization.” Libertarians are in fact very often guilty of assuming counterfactually ideal markets and counterfactually non-ideal governments. And faith-in-government liberals commit the opposite vice. To argue, correctly I think, that empirical comparative analysis shows us that actually existing market institutions tend to perform better than actually existing government institutions in achieving liberal aims does nothing to establish that libertarians aren't often guilty of Tyler's vice, or my fallacy. Indeed, as long as you don't read Tyler uncharitably as making a silly definitional claim about libertarianism, I don't see how what he is saying is even contrarian, as opposed to a perfectly good observation.
If nothing else, Tyler's post is cagey piece of strategic rhetoric that signals to egalitarian liberals a good faith willingness to actually having a debate without pointlessly pulling out ideological trump cards and declaring victory, and a related commitment to non-utopian policy—to endorsing the best option in the politically feasible set. I read Tyler as saying that he considers it inappropriate to assume a priori that market alternatives to government will always be better than government, or to assume  a priori that a policy to improve the effectiveness of some government function will not be the best feasible alternative. If some politically infeasible market reform is “better” in the abstract, that is often simply irrelevant. I think this is certainly correct.
Of course, each policy decision alters what is politically possible in the future, which can present very complex choices. Suppose policies A and B are politically feasible. Policy C is not. A is “better government” and is best in the short run. But C is “legalizing a market in whatever it is A produces” which is best in the long run. A severely reduces the probability of getting to C. B significantly increases the probability of getting to C, but by no means guarantees it, and at the cost of short-term consequences worse than A. So, should we choose A or B? It depends on what you think the expected value of A and C conditional on B are.
If you think the value of C relative to A is huge, you'll endorse B, even if it increases the probability of C only by a very small amount. I think the debate between statist liberals and market liberals is often a debate over the relative benefits of A and C. If you're the sort of libertarian who endorses B no matter how big the gains from A, and no matter how small the probability of C, then you're guilty of the vice. I've met more than a few libertarians who will not only endorse B for the purpose of very slightly increasing the the low probablity of C, but on the basis of a truly fantastic conception of a possible path from B all the way through the alphabet to N, libertarian nirvana. But by the time you get only a few steps into the future, the probability is basically zero, in which case supporting B on the prospect of its leading to N is surely a form of addlepated utopianism. If you deny that this happens, then we have been going to different libertarian conferences.
Of course, matters of feasibility are just stupefyingly complex. The infeasibility of certain market reforms are often in large part a function of the ignorance or dogmatism of statist liberals. The probability of getting from here to there is a matter of all sorts of endogenous variables. Indeed, it may be that by signaling good faith in the way you are intend to compare market and government institutions–by saying that you think better government can sometimes be the best feasible choice–you are more likely to get into a conversation that slightly lessens the ignorance and weakens the dogmatism of statist liberals, thereby making is slightly more likely that better government is not the best feasible choice. The strength of this signal is surely amplified by visibly aggravating your libertarian comrades. So, good job Tyler! Sorry I can't help by scolding you!

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center