How are libertarians different from social democrats?

Returning to last week, Ezra Klein (the real one) wrote:

Tyler Cowen is a libertarian economist with a wildly different set of
assumptions about human behavior, the policy process, and political
change [than I, Ezra, have].

I was surprised to read this.  Let’s imagine that we asked a very smart person, but one who disagreed politically with both Ezra and me, to pinpoint how Ezra and I differ.  I believe that person would see the two of us as having very different blind spots, in both moral and positive terms, but not holding fundamentally different assumptions about human behavior.  If Ezra and I chatted about which are the most insightful movies, whether the Washington Wizards should trade Gilbert Arenas, or the best way to get magazine contributors to deliver their essays on time, I don’t know how much we would agree.  (I almost always agree with Matt Yglesias about TV shows and movies, it turns out, although I don’t love The Wire as he does.)  But I’d be surprised if we disagreed any more than I would with the average libertarian, or than he would with the average social democrat.

Of course there is a lesson here, namely that our political views don’t stem from our positive views about human nature as much as we might like to think.



Your (presumably contrarian) take on The Wire should be expanded on in a longer post. It would be much appreciated.

I'm making my first time through Babylon 5 right now. This seems like a good opportunity to throw it out to the MR commenters. For fans of The Wire, what other shows can be considered as the "best ever"? Apologies for the potential thread hijack.


You're a libertarian?

Seems a little disingenuous to focus on the last sentence of Klein's post, and moreover to focus on the 1st of the 3 attributes he lists, since "human nature" doesn't really get discussed within the post, while "policy process" and "political change" do.
Seems more like sloppy writing on his part than a meaningful Freudian slip worth seizing upon.
All the more so given this stance of his on Obama and the "man crush" post about him Angus ripped
which it seems he feels the need to reconcile in this post as well.

I bet paleolibertarians would differ more with Beltway Social Democrats.

Slocum writes:

the alternative is to put other similarly flawed individuals in positions of power over them which power will be abused as those powerful persons use their positions to advance their own interests

That this is the only alternative is one of the most common misconceptions I hear from self-described libertarians. It's wise to be suspicious of power, but one should recognize there are systems that help prevent individuals from abusing their power (separation of financial powers used by auditors to ensure integrity one example). The fact is that out of the crooked timber of man, straight things can sometimes be built. A paranoid insistence that it can't strikes me as maladaptive.

2 additions two slocum:
1. Not only do libertarians think social democrats are "deeply naive about how people in positions of power actually behave", I guess social democrats also consider libertarians pretty naive about the way people with power in general behave. Atlas shrugged, hm?

2. I doubt social democrats see libertarians as fellow elites. Social democrats run quite a few countries, libertarians do not.

"I doubt social democrats see libertarians as fellow elites. Social democrats run quite a few countries, libertarians do not."


The lack of snobbishness is so underwhelming!

Libertarians run quite a few industries, social democrats rarely do.

And, the more capitalist the country (and the company) the more successful they are at accomplishing the social democrats' more worthy goals.

My guess is he didn't really mean or think about that sentence; it just fit poetically with the tone of the piece and listing three things sounds more fluid than listing two.

Andrew, i guess this is closely related to Tyler's post,and perhaps more in general libertarians real-life libertarians and real-life social democrats are closer to each other's view than both sides realize.

Also, your sailing boat analogy cuts both ways. Especially here on Marginal Revolution, 'social democrat' is often used as a shorthand for 'the opposite of libertarian', or something close to it. As a result the views that are ascribed to them have sometimes little to do with the views of the typical social democrat.

Chomsky is an extremist. He calls himself an anarcho-syndicalist, but I don't really believe it. Europe is where parties call themselves "social democrat", so that would be what we'd look to. In America Galbraith might be a good example.

Starting here:

"Social democracy is a political ideology that emerged in the late 19th century out of the socialist movement.[1] Modern social democracy is unlike socialism in the traditional sense which aims to end the predominance of the capitalist system, or in the Marxist sense which aims to replace it entirely; instead, social democrats aim to reform capitalism democratically through state regulation and the creation of state sponsored programs and organizations which work to ameliorate or remove injustices inflicted by the capitalist market system. The term itself is also used to refer to the particular kind of society that social democrats advocate. While some consider social democracy a moderate type of socialism, others, defining socialism in the traditional or Marxist sense, reject that designation."
In The Affluent Society Galbraith asserts that classical economic theory was true for the eras before the present, which were times of "poverty"; now, however, we have moved from an age of poverty to an age of "affluence," and for such an age, a completely new economic theory is needed.


Libertarian Milton Friedman in "Friedman on Galbraith, and on curing the British disease" views Galbraith as a 20th century version of the early 19th century Tory radical of Great Britain. He asserts that Galbraith believes in the superiority of aristocracy and in its PATERNALISTIC (emphasis mine) authority, that consumers should not be allowed choice and that all should be determined by those with "higher minds":

what industries do libertarians run?

To give a specific example, I don't believe that "ordinary people" are not "competent and resourceful" but I do want them to receive medical care if they get sick between jobs. I suppose that violates some freedom as it requires taxation, but I am willing to tolerate that loss in pursuit of another good.

Libertarians are not anarchists -- they understand that there are 'public goods' that the government should provide. These minimally include things like police, criminal justice system, national defense. But that's not the end of it -- for example, Milton Friendman's 'negative income tax' (EITC) and 'school vouchers' are both libertarian ideas for dealing with welfare and public education respectively. Inherent in both is an understanding that the government has a role in providing a safety net and making sure children are educated.

Most libertarians agree with you that the connection between employment and health insurance is a bad thing, and also that the government has a role to play in making sure nobody goes without medical care because they are too poor to afford it.

Starting with the extreme end:
Charles G. Koch, Koch Industries, notable because of the purity of the libertarian-derived philosophy to which he attributes the success of his company.
Paypal and Ebay have several declared libertarians amongst their founders.
Several others I can think of.

To the ones who sound close, but may not claim the word "libertarian"...
Jack Welch, Steve Forbes

And finally, the folks who essentially behave like libertarians, but think they should act like social democrats every now and then. Warren Buffett comes to mind.

And an interesting note on Peter Drucker, who if Buffett is the oracle of the top side of capitalism, Drucker could be considered the wizard of the nuts and bolts side:
"The world, especially the developed world, had recovered from repeated catastrophe because "ordinary people, people running the everyday concerns of business and institutions, took responsibility and kept on building for tomorrow while around them the world came crashing down," he wrote in 1986 in "The Frontiers of Management."

Mr. Drucker never hesitated to make suggestions he knew would be viewed as radical. He advocated legalization of drugs and stimulating innovation by permitting new ventures to charge the government for the cost of regulations and paperwork."

I think the defining characteristic of "social democrats" is that their philosophy is a moving target. I have a feeling they would bristle at the thought of a single, clear explanation of their world-view. If someone can name one, making it worth my while, I'd read it. Otherwise, I'm too busy reading stuff that I think is right to plow through stuff I think is mostly wrong.

"If Ezra and I chatted about which are the most insightful movies, whether the Washington Wizards should trade Gilbert Arenas, or the best way to get magazine contributors to deliver their essays on time, I don't know how much we would agree."
You guys should, on Though maybe not about basketball, I don't think Ezra's a big sports fan. Talk about cooking and food instead.

calling republicanism an ideology.
Lower-case "r" republicanism used to be an ideology. It opposed monarchy and empire. It was so successful you don't even need to call anyone that as few people are monarchists.

Libertarians are not anarchists
Some are. They've called me and other minarchists "socialists" many times!

The heads of Whole Foods and Cypress Semiconductors are both libertarians and had a debate about the social responsibility of corporations.

"Libertarians are not anarchists"
Some are. They've called me and other minarchists "socialists" many times!

..where does that leave Libertarian Socialists?

Please come to requiem gold, we will give you a great surprise.

The philosophy behind it is, that in order to give people equal chances, you have to treat them differently and compensate for disadvantages. We are not equal from birth, so for many of us thinking in a social democratic way, classic libertarians are people that means that disadvantages are a nature or God given thing not for humans to change.
That makes libertarianism a religion and not a political/economic ideology.
And I think that is the main difference between Libertarians and social democrats.


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