Libertarians and Government Quality

by on August 11, 2006 at 1:07 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Tyler is very wrong to say that libertarians assume that government quality is fixed.  On the contrary, I always assume that government quality can go way down.

Seriously, however, a large part of the libertarian/classical liberal program has been about designing institutions to improve government quality just look at Hayek’s the Constitution of Liberty or Buchanan and Tullock’s the Calculus of Consent.  The classicals, Montesquieu, Locke, Madison et al. were primarily focused on increasing government quality through constitutional design, things like democracy, division of powers, federalism, an independent judiciary and a bill of rights.  The libertarian program of improving government quality has been remarkably successful, and far more successful than any other program.

Are there other methods of increasing government quality?  Yes.  In my post on Fiasco, I wrote, "Should we be surprised that delays, errors and incompetence are more prevalent at the INS than at bureaucracies which must deal with citizens or which face competition from the private sector?" which implicitly gives two methods for raising government quality – giving customers a vote and creating a competitive benchmark.

Contra Tyler, libertarians are on the forefront of offering
ideas to improve government quality.  Term limits, flat tax (as a way
of reducing corruption not just an economic improvement), different voting methods, a balanced
budget amendment, openness and transparency, competition, increased
federalism, and unrestricted media are just a few ideas.

Tyler, in contrast, doesn’t give any hint of how to improve government quality and his examples are not very good. Tyler likes Finnish architecture.  Well it’s no surprise that if a lot of governments promote architecture one of them will produce something that Tyler likes. I think this is very cool but I don’t advocate bringing back the funders.  Same thing with the highway system or the Internet.  Sure, these were good investments but does government investment pay as a rule?

The grand libertarian program has improved government quality tremendously – so much so that we are well into the realm of diminishing returns but we can do better and libertarians are among the leaders in suggesting how.

Addendum: Glen Whitman replies to Tyler also.

Vorn August 11, 2006 at 1:35 pm

Alex writes:

“The classicals, Montesquieu, Locke, Madison et al. were primarily focused on increasing government quality through constitutional design, things like democracy, division of powers, federalism, an independent judiciary and a bill of rights. The libertarian program of improving government quality has been remarkably successful, and far more successful than any other program.”

I surely hope your not suggesting that Madison was a libertarian. He was not. He was a slave owner, which I think, hardly fits into libertarian ideology. Or does it?? I think you seem to be suggesting that anyone who has come up with a good idea regarding the design of government in order to say that libertarians have been the “most successful” at reforming government.

Vorn August 11, 2006 at 1:43 pm

That last sentence did not come out right. It should be:

It seems you are suggesting that anyone who has come up with a good idea regarding the design of government is a libertarian in order to say that libertarians have been the “most successful” at reforming government.

I should further note that John Locke was hardly a modern day libertarian.

Matthew Cromer August 11, 2006 at 2:23 pm

The problem with government is not that it is uniformly bad, but that it does not compete.

Mike Huben August 11, 2006 at 2:30 pm

Alex’s claims that libertarians have improved government is a laughably audacious.

He’s exploiting a propaganda coup of Hayek’s: conflation of Enlightenment liberals with 20th century Austrian Economics. Hayek called it Classical Liberalism. I haven’t been able to find any earlier use of the term.

Enlightenment liberals did make major improvements to government. But however much Alex claims, there is no significant government improvement that can be shown due to Hayek, Buchanan or Tullock.

Mike J. August 11, 2006 at 2:45 pm

I call the program of constitutionally limiting government a libertarian/classical liberal program. Everyone except for authoritarians endorses that program. You can’t expect libertarians to get credit for every good idea that every non-authoritarian ever had.

What’s distinctive about libertarians is their eliminationist attitude towards government services and regulations. Only insofar as a libertarian has a suggestion as to how government services might be improved by eliminating regulations do her suggestions of how to improve government services count as libertarian. But surely every rational person can grant that there are other ways to improve government services.

Dave Meleney August 11, 2006 at 3:03 pm

Alex writes: “The grand libertarian program has improved government quality tremendously – so much so that we are well into the realm of diminishing returns..” How true…and how much seeing the world from this vantage point can effect how one feels about our country, the state of the world, and what one’s part in this great struggle may be.

Sadly the activists that one meets at a tax-cut meeting, a libertarian party event, or even at many free-market think tanks…. tend to hold a far different view of the state of things. Pessimism is also the prevailing view at some pretty hi-class weblogs we know.

Would that your vision could infect and energize our often frustrated, sometimes angry, but deeply caring team of a million small-government patriots.

Care to further detail your assessment of current progress? What worthwhile endeavor doesn’t need a progress report now and again?

Mike J. August 11, 2006 at 3:41 pm

There are plenty of hard-core advocates of democracy that don’t like to see any limits on the will of the people and they aren’t necessarily authoritarians.

Fair enough. I worry that Prof. Tabarrok has such an expansive view of Libertarianism that he thinks of democracy itself as a Libertarian idea. After all, what is democracy but giving customers of government a vote? And, indeed, having our leaders be chosen the will of the people is a kind of limit on our leaders, if not on the citizenry. I don’t mean to knock democracy, which is one of the best good government initiatives there is. But it’s only Libertarian in a Pickwickian sense.

Anon August 11, 2006 at 3:48 pm

In response to:
“The problem with government is not that it is uniformly bad, but that it does not compete.”

(I understand the reference is to private/government competition…but I wanted to point out that…)

Governments do compete — with each other. Corporations and people move to countries that provide the highest value services for the lowest cost. It takes generations for families to migrate, decades to train new work forces, years to move factories/establish services…

…but it happens. My ancestors choose America because it was the best value/opportunity. Best bang for every tax-dollar.

[beginning subjective viewpoint]
Unfortunately, the time-scale of inter-government competition is too large to manage effectively with term-elected politicians and an immediate-gratification-minded electorate. People generally vote to improve their utility immediately instead of looking towards the future and ensuring later generations don’t get screwed over.

I am in no way arguing for a monarchy — but at least a King would ‘look out’ for his country’s long term future since he expected his child to inherit it.

Kevin B. August 11, 2006 at 4:01 pm

“…does government investment pay as a rule?”

Well, if government investments go toward infrastructure improvements, they might be more likely to pay dividends.

SP August 11, 2006 at 4:29 pm

In response to Mike Huben’s point, I’m not sure Alex said what he thinks he said. I don’t think he credited any modern libertarians with having any positive effects on government. He mentioned them only to demonstrate that there are libertarians who concern themselves with ideas concerning the improvement of government, and that this refutes Tyler’s original claim.

Swimmy August 11, 2006 at 4:53 pm

Advocating democracy and advocating democracy relative to specific inalienable rights is very different. Is it really so controversial to say that the American Revolution was decidedly more libertarian than the French Revolution?

Mike J August 11, 2006 at 5:27 pm

The point is that libertarians advocate many methods of improving government quality, the point is not that every method of improving government quality is libertarian.

Well, good. So everyone agrees that government quality comes in better and worse, and that this isn’t just a matter of less and more.

Let us return to the initial question: does the fiasco in Iraq give evidence for libertarianism? Does the failure of the French and Polish armies in WWII give evidence for it too? If it does, does the relative success of the first Gulf War give evidence against? What about the success of American armies in WWII? The question about whether libertarians believe in a fixed quality of government arose out of the evaluation of that form of argument. If one grants that government can be better and worse in quality and that these differences are, to some extent, under our control, then one can be against bad government without being against all government (or, against all government except the watchman state).

Steve Sailer August 11, 2006 at 9:26 pm

Being an ideologue is terribly adolescent. I used to be a libertarian ideologue when I was young, but as I got out in the world and learned more about how it really worked, my loyalty to the faith was undermined. I still think the basic ideas of the libertarian ideology make a lot of sense on average, but I now understand the many exceptions.

Steve Sailer Impersonator August 12, 2006 at 2:04 am

When you childish libretarians grow up, you’ll see that my version of central planning is far superior to whatever you’ve concocted in your puerile, Randian fantasies.

pireader August 12, 2006 at 4:16 am

Alex wrote — “Same thing with the highway system or the Internet. Sure, these were good investments but does government investment pay as a rule?”

At first glance, the answer seems to be “Yes”, at least in comparing across US states.

Those with the highest levels of state/local spending per capita also have the highest GDP per capita. And it’s not just a legacy: These same states have (slightly) above average long-term growth rates. Suggesting that perhaps spending on public services does pay off [at least up to a point]

Dan Klein August 13, 2006 at 9:23 am

Alex, good stuff.

RE Sweden (mentioned in Tyler’s post): Yes, government works much better in Sweden than in the US. I think that you can make a very good case, however, that it is for reasons that also make voluntary arrangements work better in Sweden than in the US. The upshot, I think, is that, by and large, in Sweden the superiority of voluntary over coercive remains positive, albeit smaller, than in the US.

Arguably, genuiine Swedish consumption of “We” or “Swedishness” is not, on net, enhanced by their Big G activism/welfare statism.

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