An underlying tension in libertarianism

On the one hand, [Charles] Murray says he wants to liberate citizens
from the welfare state so they can live life however they choose.
On the other hand, by liberating citizens from the welfare state,
he hopes to force them back into lives of traditional bourgeois

Read more here.  Many Swedes, of course, consider themselves highly individualistic, precisely for this reason.

Thanks to for the pointer.


"Underlying tension in libertarianism" might be an overstatement. Some libertarians are also libertines so they welcome looser mores. Some libertarians think that price mechanisms alone will select (in the evolutionary sense) politeness, preocupation for reputation and restraint. ...

The underlying impulse is exactly as described and should give any libertarian pause, because if the proposal didn't perform as desired (time inconsistency!) what other devices would Murray and others turn to in order to build a republic of virtue?

I think Jeffrey Friedman’s libertarian straddle is actually a more problematic tension. The flimsy assumptions of non-consequentialist libertarianism are often bolstered by pointing to empirical evidence. This is problematic as it points to the deficiencies in libertarian philosophy and because the empirical record is ultimately unconvincing to anyone not predisposed to see it in such a way. Though in fairness, partisans of all stripes similarly weave between their ideological beliefs and whatever real world evidence they can find.

Can you explain what you mean about Swedes? I find it interesting but I didn't understand it.

“This is combined with an ideology of work - to be able to claim the goodies, you have to work or minimally "be available to the work force."†

You are 20-30 years too late. These demands are long gone, and people are now eligible for welfare without any demand for work.

This is part of the reason the effective employment rate has collapsed (the official one has “only† gone down by 10 percentage points, but official wedish figures include long term sick leave, government programs, and many other groups that don’t actually work).

“the empirical record [for liberterian arguments] is ultimately unconvincing to anyone not predisposed to see it in such a way.†

Really? Care to give examples? The failure of the US in the 19th century perhaps? Hong Kong? The amazing success of big government in solving social problems?

“I interpret them, bourgeois virtues are an evolved (and evolving) set of norms that internalize incentives that lead to high productivity, and high growth.†

Brilliant argument, I completely agree. Bourgeois virtues are what many people will *voluntarily* strive for, in order to improve their lives and the lives of their children. If this is indeed the care there is absolutely no “underlying tension† in Murrays argument.

Many highly educated libertarians confuse libertarian politics with values that (elite) libertarians often hold privately. But a successful libertarian society is much more likely to lead to “socially conservative† norms among large segments of the population, in order to solve many problems inherent in human nature. The Tyler Cowen types may not need bourgeois virtues to succeed in life, but most people do.

My guess is that Cowen is referring to social liberal and privately individualistic norms that Swedes are shown to hold in international surveys (i.e we are one of the least religious peoples in the world, have week family norm etc). Social Democrats are very proud that the state has made the family and (voluntary) community unnecessary.

But do not confuse Swedish “individualism† with anything remotely libertarian. This is again socialism in action (East Germany has almost exactly the same figures).

The anti-family situation and gender work divisions are a good example. This is NOT something that people choice voluntarily in an undistorted market. The government uses laws and massive subsidies to make it hard for women to stay at home with their children (that so many do it anyway is a testament that much of these values are indeed close to human nature). Unlike what many think Swedish woman are less successful that American women in combining work and family, in that we have fewer women top managers for example.

Swedish “individualism† has anything to do with the ideals that government should stay out of people’s private lives. Using the state to actively destroy bourgeois virtues is hardly libertarianism.

Charles Murray has a deep sympathy for the plight of the left half of the Bell Curve, which is otherwise lacking in American intellectual discourse.

Teller: I gather that you never have tried to make a living on the Swedish welfare state. If anything, Swedish welfare is less generous now than 20 years ago. If you mean that people rarely are allowed to exit the welfare system, you have a point. But you have to work. You can always discuss the the utility and meaning of the public jobs offered, but I reckon that they at least competes well with packing brown bags at the grocery store in that regard.

Sorry--to clarify, various social policies take away the incentives to do those things. Murray has said before he'd like to change that, so that people had incentives to stay at a crappy job, get married and raise their kids, etc.

Dan K

Really? I lived on Swedish welfare for 14 years. My parents are still making a comfortable living from different programs (pension and sick benefits), and non of them has ever actually worked. Never having worked gives you a pension of ca 1200 $ per month in this case, with free health care, dental care, etc.

A huge percentage of immigrants live on welfare, never even entering the labor market. The same is increasingly true of young native Swedes. Many who have worked but leave the labor market stay out, never re-reentering before retirement.

In total 22% of the Swedish adult population is living full time on various government programs. Many do so for years, this is not some sort of short term phenomenon. The economical payoff of not working and holding a low paying job are quite similar, in terms of pension benefits etc.

“you have to work†

Eh, no, you don’t. If you did the effective employment (minus permanent sick leave and government programs) rate would not have fallen from almost 80% to 67%.

The single largest component of those living on welfare is early retired (10% of adult population), that have no demand what so ever of working. Living of direct “welfare† is generally coupled with no demands, in regions with many immigrants especially the welfare office assumes you can live of this as long as you like.

With sick leave again there are no demands (another 4% of the adult population, although some are of course actually sick).

The demands if you are unemployed are very easy to handle. They don’t generally offer you jobs anyway, but “training†, for example sending e-mails, writing CVs, learning languages. (a friend of mines father is a Scottish native, and has not worked for 10 of the 11 last years. He was offered a course in beginnings English by the unemployment office†¦)

“utility and meaning of the public jobs offered, but I reckon that they at least competes well with packing brown bags at the grocery store in that regard†

The difference is that packing brown bags is an ACTUALL JOB, not a fake program created by the state to keep people busy. Packing groceries for 7 dollars per hour creates some value for society. It you can hold the job a few years it signals future employers that you have certain characteristics that are needed in the labour market, such as basic work ethic. Most importantly it enables you to live of your own labor, as opposed to being a parasite on the rest of society.

Of course if you hold modern Social Democratic norms I don’t expect you to understand the distinction between creating value, if ever so small, and be able to live of your own toil, as opposed to take handouts from taxpayers.

Of course, the committed nuclear family can still suffer from sudden death of one of the partners. And divorce may be financially harmful, but sometimes it really is necessary. Then what?

In Europe, he says with evident disdain, ``the purpose of life is to while away the time as pleasantly as possible.''

Uh, like Paris Hilton, certain political families and other members of the rentier classes who have guaranteed incomes from inherited wealth? I do think we see a double standard here, where Murray considers dependency on the welfare state corrupting and shameful, but not dependency on income from multi-generational inheritances that the current recipients did nothing to create.

David Tomlin: Yea, you're right: this idea is not new. I remember being first introduced to it when I was taking undergraduate economics and the professor mentioned this idea having been floated by one of Nixon's adivsors.

Anyway, I think it's a great idea... think of the vast bureaucracy that would be eliminated while still maintaining social ideals. Plus, with a system like this, it suddenly becomes politically feasible to do other things, like killing min. wage...

Comments for this post are closed