Bryan Caplan responds to criticisms of libertarianism

He makes many points, here is one of them:

E&O might be right that cynicism about government perversely increases support for government.  But if so, libertarians shouldn't attack the public's justified cynicism.  Instead, they should help people see the logical anti-government conclusion of their cynicism.  Academics who are cynical about government generally are anti-government; see for yourself at the Public Choice Society meetings.  Why not teach laymen to make the same connection?

I worry when I read this.  Most of all, it is surprisingly meliorist; I once read a book that suggested voters were doomed to irrationality (albeit to varying degrees).  If voters can be taught the correct sophisticated mix of cynicism and pro-liberty sentiment, can they not be taught to support good policies, thus making democracy a well-functioning system of government?  The E&O criticism strikes at the heart of an important tension in libertarian thought.  Outcomes which might be described as "good libertarian" also require important public goods to be produced at the level of overall public sentiment; there's no getting around that.

Admittedly, being pessimistic about public sentiment under democracy does not a priori mandate being pessimistic about the ability of public sentiment to support and maintain more libertarian settings.  (You might for instance think that the public good can be produced under some settings but that democracy per se corrupts public opinion, because of its internal workings, electoral pandering, etc.)  Nonetheless, I've yet to see good, well-fleshed out arguments to support the split claim Caplan is proposing, namely that public sentiment can be produced to support good libertarian outcomes but not good democratic outcomes.  

Addendum: Caplan responds.

Comments

I thought the second point was interesting:

Until small-government types better master the nuts and bolts of the public sector--how to design policies that work in the real world and how to execute on large public undertakings--their initiatives to downsize government will continue to disappoint.

Here in Britain, we had a highly effective and uncorrupt civil service for a century. This was largely due to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms, which required persistent, systematic, detailed action to implement and keep working.

However, when you look at modern libertarians, they tend to attribute a lack of corruption to intangible, unreachable factors; like culture, or mysterious presumed-to-exist genes.

People who think that way are unlikely to help make government any more honest or efficient. They tend to regard institutional structures as trivial, and the non-trivial factors as conveniently beyond our control. Any influence they have in government is therefore likely to make government worse rather than better.

sorry Cowen, your flavor of libertarianism is not something the American public desires either

Respecting liberty only requires understanding generalities. To support socialist ideas requires every voter to closely examine every spending bill a government passes. The former is much more practical than the latter.

Phil, for that criticism to be meaningful, we'd need an example of a state that doesn't teach its people anything, so we can compare and contrast. Once more, the spectre of Somalia appears over libertarian faraway hills.

In many cases, government is like a gun, and statism is like the agent firing the gun. Governments don't kill, statism does.

What libertarians should be against is statism, not government per se. Most agents of government are relatively statist, but not all.

What keeps government from being worse than it is is not so much any democratic mechanism, but the measure of decency and enlightenment nestled within each agent within its structures. It is primarily as a lattice of not-too-terribly-unenlightened despots that government works as well as it does.

Government has at least one important and necessary function: Dismantling other governmental functions.

"If voters can be taught the correct sophisticated mix of cynicism and pro-liberty sentiment, can they not be taught to support good policies, thus making democracy a well-functioning system of government?"

"Nonetheless, I've yet to see good, well-fleshed out arguments to support the split claim Caplan is proposing, namely that public sentiment can be produced to support good libertarian outcomes but not good democratic outcomes."

The difference between good libertarian and good democratic outcomes is that good democratic outcomes are far more complex to achieve even if you stipulate that they are achievable. A good libertarian outcome would be to deregulate X and allow the free market to throw its thousands of ideas at it and let the best ones work their way through the system. To do this you need the electorate to understand (or just accept) how the market works. A good democratic outcome requires that the electorate understands (or accepts) many of the same basic principles of incentives and competition- but they then also need to be able to identify lawmakers who are honest and not just competent- but borderline brilliant- who can then craft the appropriate legislation in such a manner to give the desired outcome. Then, of course, you have to maintain vigilance in the face of decreasing rewards because the swap from bad democracy to good would reap huge rewards but slowly reducing vigilance would lead to only slightly worse outcomes at first, but over time would lead to massively worse outcomes.

sorry Cowen, your flavor of libertarianism is not something the American public desires either

This is only half true. If you ask most Americans (like most people), if they want free beer and pizza, they will say yes! If it turns out that the pizza tastes like cardboard, and the beer like piss, and you take half of their income to pay for it, then Americans don't want that.

So Americans support socialized medicine in opinion polls, and support politicians (like the Democrats) who support such policies in theory, until it comes time to craft the legislation and the costs and trade offs become obvious... then politicians are shocked at how libertarian the public have become. Americans support socialized medicine to the extent that they want their current private medicine, but not pay for it... in the same way they would love their favorite pizza and beer, but not pay for it.

Democrats are now getting burned, not because they supported socialized medicine (which continues to be popular), but because they can't deliver a system of socialized medicine that competes with people's fantasies about how socialized medicine is supposed to work.

Americans support socialism as much as everyone else, however they are uncomfortable with the sacrifices necessary to achieve socialism. Where as, Europeans have already made sacrificed generations ago and have no living memory of not having socialism. Any sacrifices they are making are completely abstract.

"Taxpayers should have a direct say over what money is spent and borrowed, in proportion to how much tax they pay. Putting such a system in place will curtail the persistent problem of ever expanding government spending." -Al Brown

That's interesting.

It's easier to direct cynicism about government (make government smaller!) than to instill highly specific and sometimes counterintuitive notions of government. One's instilling a basic prejudice, the other requires actual sophistication.

elected representatives can "be taught to support good policies." but only when we have a system that allows to choose who represents us proportionally and only when we ourselves support good policies in sufficient numbers.

I stopped reading it when I thought "What sort of libertarians censor comments?"

Hah, you're not alone!

The difference between good libertarian and good democratic outcomes is that good democratic outcomes are far more complex to achieve even if you stipulate that they are achievable. A good libertarian outcome would be to deregulate X and allow the free market to throw its thousands of ideas at it and let the best ones work their way through the system.

This is question-begging isn't it? You are assuming that any libertarian outcome is a "good libertarian outcome." For something to be a "good democratic outcome," OTOH, it must not only be democratic, it must meet some standard of "goodness."

That's like saying it's easier to make a delicious apple pie than a delicious cherry pie because all apple pies are delicious, while lots of cherry pies aren't. That may reflect your tastes, but it's not an objective truth.

I think E&O may be a sign that libertarians are growing up. If libertarians ever want to be taken seriously, IE get elected and directly participate in formulating policy, they cannot do it by constantly whining about government. They need to offer a positive agenda. They need to offer real criticisms of specific govt policies, getting beyond "government sucks." I read multiple libertarian sites and if there were more writing with the tone employed by E&O, I think libertarians would be wya ahead of where they are now.

Steve

Libertarians have marketing problems.

Libertarian usual message: "Big government is dangerous and wholly in-efficient!"

Libertarian message with marketing expertise: "Do you want your colonoscopy performed by the DMV?"

-Gene

In any case, E&O neglect libertarians' comparative advantage. There are millions of non-libertarians who want to improve government efficiency, compared to thousands of libertarians who want to shrink government. Libertarians should focus on the latter task, because if we don't do it, no one will.Libertarians are far more likely to know how to improve government efficiency than people with other ideologies, knowing econ and stuff. It seems improving the government in general would be libertarians' comparative advantage where "improving" is defined to include addition by subtraction.

Tyler,

What's your take on democracy, esp. vis-a-vis the public choice problems? Would love to see a full blown post on this, instead of just some quick criticisms of Caplan.

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