Libertarian heresies

Here is a good report on my libertarian heresies, summarizing a talk I gave at the Institute for Humane Studies a few weeks ago.  Excerpt:

Russia, he pointed out, is failing as a free society not because it
is poor – Putin’s shrewed management of high commodity prices has put
paid to much Russian poverty – but because Russians tend to privilege
their friends and contacts above all else, leading to epic levels of
corruption. Corruption, of course, is a signal rule of law failure.

He then asked, somewhat rhetorically, if liberty was confined (and
defined) by culture: ‘We should not presume that our values are as
universal as we often think they are’. What happens, he asked
rhetorically, if – in order to enjoy the benefits of liberty and
prosperity – societies have to undergo a major cultural transformation,
including the loss of many appealing values? Cowen focussed on Russian
loyalty and friendship, but there are potentially many others. Think,
for example, of the extended family so privileged throughout the
Islamic world, or the communitarian values common in many indigenous


Is there any way we could hear or read the actual talk or one like it?

If cronyism, nepotism and corruption are rampant I want less, not more, government.

For example, three studies of the population of Iraq found that about half of all married couples were first or second cousins (with more first cousin than second cousin marriages). This keeps extended families from getting _too_ extended and thus makes them very cohesive economically and emotionally: if I organize an arranged marriage between my son and my sibling's daughter, then our grandchildren will be our mutual heirs. This makes it much simpler in terms of who inherits the family business.

The downside of the high levels of cousin marriage found from Morocco to parts of India is that Western-style individualism is less feasible.


The greater heresy is to consider that question in light of open borders.

If people are poor as a consequence of their highly valued social mores... then why give a crap that they are poor? They are rich in what matters to them.

If people are poor as a consequence of their highly valued social mores... then why give a crap that they are poor? They are rich in what matters to them.

I'd like to second Charlie's request - Tyler, is there any way you could make available audio or a transcript of that talk, or even just your notes for it, if such exist?

I think that Tyler is confusing the western values of friendship, loyalty, and family which are based on relatively uncontrained, free choices with "friendship and loyalty," which are based on a gang mentality, in which deviation is punished. Similarly, as some of Sadam`s family found out, making choices that don't coincide with the "family" leadership`s desires can also be punished.

In both cases, you can look back to instances in American history, in which the older versions of these "values" were practiced. In almost every case, they were used to benefit a leadership at the expense of relatively innocent, but less powerful groups.

In short, I think that evolving to versions of friendship, loyalty, and family that are closer to current western versions is going to be a positive for virtually everyone, except, possibly, the beneficiaries of the current system.

Radical self-criticism on a libertarian blog? You guys just earned a couple points of respect from me.

Governement probably grows with complexity. 150 years ago, most people lived on farms on a subsistenze level. There was not much to regulate and an individual farmer couldn't do much deliberate or accidental harm to others.
Today, we've got highways and cars, planes, sky scrapers, nuclear power plants, complicated medical procedures and medication, processed food. The internet can be abused in all kinds of fraudulant and criminal ways etc.

Libertarians frequently propose private institutions to replace governement based regulation or to provide infrastructure. But these institutions would have to be big as well. So size alone is not a good argument against governement.

I, too, would like to read a draft of the speech, if one is availble. Thanks.

I don't usually speak from notes, but skepticlawyer may be able to help out...

Tyler, sorry that you don't have notes. The skepticlawyer only summarizes three of the five points. What were the other two? Thanks.

The problem is that most libertarians reflexively flinch at any mention of "positive liberties," just as the account of Tyler's talk suggests, but the vast majority of people only care about positive liberties. Negative liberties aren't an end in themselves because you desire them in order to do X, Y, and Z. Only a few of the truly hardcore libertarians (David Friedman being the most obvious example, plus Robert Nozick in the Utopia section of "Anarchy, State, and Utopia") realize this and argue in terms of how maximizing negative liberty leads to consequences that foster maximum positive liberty.

I have a wager of sorts for my fellow libertarians: Say you could live in either contemporary America or a fully libertarian society that, for now, has a Bronze Age standard of living. Which would you choose? I'll take contemporary America, because whatever its lack of libertarian purity, it still offers me vastly more choices.

I have a wager of sorts for my fellow libertarians: Say you could live in either contemporary America or a fully libertarian society that, for now, has a Bronze Age standard of living. Which would you choose?

Assuming you design the choice so that the Bronze Age libertarian society doesn't trade with the current Western countries etc. in order to advance quickly in a generation, I would choose contemporary America.

But what is the point that question? I would also rather, say, we get national health care rather than my brother dies in a plane crash. What is that supposed to prove?

And it's not even that the two are unrelated. In a society closer to the libertarian ideal, people would be wealthier, have faster computers, and all the other things you presumably like about contemporary America and its options for your lifestyle.

If your point is merely that some libertarians lose perspective and need to chill out, fair enough; I agree totally. But I don't think they're making any type of mistake in their call for the government to leave them alone.

I don't get the question - if society is going down the gurgler because people aren't engaging in open trading but prefer to operate in closed close-knit groups - then so what? By Libertarian standards the Russians aren't doing anything wrong. Forcing Russians to operate outside of their preferred close-knit ties would be Illibertarian.

On the other hand, I like F. Harris' question as T. Cowen rightly pointed out that governments were rather small because societies were rather small. It's hard to say whether Libertarians could really build a modern society. I believe T. Cowen hits upon another point that a functioning society does have positive duties places on people. As one commentator pointed out ( )'an eye for eye' was a civilising step for people and yet it's a positive duty not a negative right. 'An eye an eye' is a duty upon the victim and their assistants to procure a punishment or restitution to the level of the crime committed and no more. Compare this to many tribal and feudal societies - a small crime can be spark a long and bloody conflict that can last generations. Yet this can be considered Libertarian - a criminal has no right to place duties with regard to punishment and if a tribe stands by the criminal and against the victim and his tribe then the victim's tribe could reasonably go to war because the tribe is abetting a crime. I do believe T. Cowen has shown Libertarians again why there's no society that could be considered 'Libertarian'.

Two points on Tyler's talk (as summarized by skepticlawyer blog):

1. It might be good for Tyler to speak of positive capabilities as "positive liberty," but I think that, nonetheless, his doing so is bad for humankind (as compared to his just speaking of positive capabilities).

2. The expansion of positive capabilities enhances liberty ONLY by the channel that it reduces the coerciveness of restrictions. The coerciveness of a restriction ranges in magnitude, and a restriction is less coercive the less important to you it is. Expanding positive capabilities reduce the importance of any particular restriction. But it is only through this channel that the expansion of positive capabilities enhances liberty. Thus, "negative" liberty remains primary. Positive capabilities figure in only through the channel of negative liberty. Robinson Crusoe, alone on a desert island, is perfectly free, even though his positive capabilities are piss poor.

I'm old fashioned enough to think words have meaning. If you mean capabilities then darn it say capabilities. If you mean freedom then say freedom. We don't really advance the discussion by saying freedom when we mean capabilities.

Semantics (and semantics are important) aside, I agree with Tyler that most people care about what they can do in the capabilities sense. Give most people the choice between being rich and powerful in a police state versus poor in a free state, and most people will choose the former. [Sigh.]

The important research question in my mind is the relationship between freedom and capabilities. Most of us libertarians argue that freedom breeds enhanced capabilities. E.g., Free market societies are richer.

I like Dan Klein's point that more capabilities, ceteris paribus, can enhance freedom by lessening the severity of restrictions.

But in the end, it is important to note that just because two things are related, it doesn't follow that the two things are the same thing.

Russia's nepotism story has changed and in many respects (not all) the Russian society today is more market driven than the society in the west. For more on this topic read about Russian "Blat". Ledeneva first wrote about it.

More than one person has implied that larger, more complex government is an inevitable result of a larger, more complex society. Huh? The more complex things get, the more the need to break them down into component parts, or in other words, the more the need to DE-centralize. The more complex things are, the less able a small group of people will be able to understand those things, much less do anything beneficial about them. Complexity should be recognized as an argument in favor of libertarianism, free markets, and spontaneous order, not against them.

Bernard yomtov says, "I would hold self-professed libertarians in much higher regard if it weren't for the fact that they seem to ignore [that 'our culture showed itself pretty amenable to police state regression over the last 7 years all because of 19 guys with carton cutters']. Those who consider helmet laws a more important issue than habeas corpus ought not, IMO, be considered champions of liberty."

I would hold non-libertarians in much higher regard if it weren't for the fact that they seem to forget about issues like these when "their guy" sits in the White House. But your "those who consider helmet laws..." is a strawman; people like Radley Balko, the Cato Institute, and Alex Tabarrok have placed much more emphasis on big civil liberties issues both before and during the Bush Administration, whereas the left can't even think of any infractions during the Clinton Administration and the right can rationalize all of the Bush Administration infractions.

Secret evidence, holding foreigners without trial, Carnivore, Echelon, bombing foreign countries, nation-building were all Clinton-era policies, some of which the right opposed. Most of the Patriot Act provisions were developed during the Clinton Administration, which is how the FBI was ready so quickly when the opportunity arose. Now that the White House has changed hands, the right finds that nation-building, wire-tapping, and torture are "necessary" for national security, and the left has suddenly discovered that what was once unfortunately necessary to protect human rights has now become egregiously offensive.

NPTO has it right when he refers to culture as remarkably flexible. 'Culture' is ofen invoked as that certain something which we cannot otherwise explain and/or changes slowly. But there are many examples which show that people from other cultures behave remarkably differently in different circumstances. The traditional Arab privileging of extended families and first-cousin marriages somehow seems to fly right out the window when Arabs relocate to North America or Europe. And why is it that for centuries the Chinese and Indians were known as cultures of merchants all over the world? All over the world, that is, except China and India. And could you give me an explanation of the tendencies of Jewish culture- if there even is such a thing- which made them renowned as merchants and capitalists in Europe and the Middle East but, when they had a chance to establish their own state in Mandatory Palestine, they established a one-party socialist state?
In reference to Russia, I would suggest that, simnilarly, it is the institutions which are shaping the culture, and not the other way around.

I would also add that there is remarkably little consensus as to what culture even IS. Clifford Geertz once- I don't have there reference in front of me- counted all the definitions of 'culture' that anthropologists had been using through the first halof of the twentieth century. He got something like niniety definitions. From those, Geertz was able to boil those down to only NINETEEN different, and usually mnutually exclusive, definitions.

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