22 June 2011

Libertarian reflection

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Libertarianism: How, not Why

The game that I call "trolling for libertarians" seems to be quite popular this week. I guess it's a slow summer. So you make straw-man attacks in order to draw hits.

Do you want to dissuade people from taking a libertarian position? Then you need to convince me that I should expect the institution of government to outperform individuals in making decisions. That is a tough sell.
I agree this should be the milestone, but I find in practice it rarely is. I run in to a lot of people, including some otherwise smart and fair people, who have some odd flavor of status quo bias that prevents them from doing this. They don't want the libertarian reform to be better than the existing government proposal, they want it to be flawless.

So, for instance, I see people saying things like "we can't have charter schools because some will be better than others and some kids won't get in to the good ones, so outcomes will be unequal." Now there are some good criticisms of charter schools, but this one applies just as well (better, even) to the existing public schools.

Example two: I see a lot of people (eg these commenters) saying we couldn't ever contract out certain government operations to private enterprises because either (1) the government employees don't have an incentive to keep the cost of the contract down, or (2) don't have the expertise to write the contract properly. It's very hard to get these people to realize that if the bureaucrats are going to be incapable of doing that then they'll be equally incapable of running the service themselves.
Broadly speaking, individuals can make prudential errors, and they can make moral errors. I can fail to act in my best interests. Or I can fail to act in others' interests when it would cost me little to do so.

Contrary to straw-man representations, I believe that individuals make prudential and moral mistakes all the time. However, the institution of government is not some magic correction fluid for wiping out these mistakes. [...]
I call this Fairygodmotherism. In the context of foreign policy, it is greenlanternism. The State is powerful, but there is no such thing as a Care Bear Stare.
I actually think that the best point at which to engage libertarians is over how, not why. In the real world, how can the potential harms of the institution of government be minimized? It is on the how questions that I see libertarians divided among ourselves, evading difficult issues with hand-waving, and engaging in wishful thinking.
1. True. We do tend to hand wave. Of course, I see a lot of hand waving from all ideologies.

2. Perhaps if we had to do less "why" we would be better at "how." Less effort spent convincing people we're not crackpots and deserve to be heard might lead people to have both more time for and more interest in the details.

3. Any hand waving is too much, but it is particularly unwelcome for adherents of an ideology which tends to put a lot of weight on rigor and rationality.

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