Tuesday, April 13, 2010


People are beating up on Bryan Caplan for some extra-stupid remarks he made lately that I guess are part of a major discussion about libtertarianism and if we are more or less free now than in the late 19th century. Apparently Caplan thinks women in the 1880s were freer than they are now because they didn't have to pay income tax, or something like that.

It's an excuse for me to link to some of my earlier jibes at Caplan, at this blog and his own, where he was seriously entertaining the idea that the Earth could support a population in the trillions.

I know, twitting libertarians is a waste of time, but this guy is an actual tenured professor of economics at an actual university. Damn. His home page has got to be seen to be believed. [[update: oh darn, it's been updated to not look like it was done by a 14-year-old on ecstasy -- here's the archive.org version of the good one]]

In fairness, there are some non-crazy libertarian types writing on this as well, and there's even some interesting talk about liberal/libertarian fusion. But I'm not in a fair mood.

[[Update: Caplan, not satisfied with being the blogosphere's whipping boy for a week, outdoes himself in creepy blockheadedness. This guy really puts the Ass in Asperger's.]]


Chris said...

I think libertarianism "values" are a reasonable basis for making political decisions (basically, the idea that "freedom" is axiomatically good, rather than say the leftist idea that says that equality is axiomatically good). But many real-world libertarians unfortunately think use their starting point as "taxes are the root of all evil" and end up drawing all sorts of absurd conclusions.

oldfatherwilliam said...

Freedom to plunder? Or freedom from plunder? Which to choose is the issue, nothing else. And I don't mean taxes.

David Chapman said...

Oddly, I read Will Wilkinson's piece a few days ago, pointed at from I cannot imagine where. I know almost nothing about "libertarianism", although I sort of feel I ought to, so I went and read Caplan and the other things you linked, and could only agree that "extra-stupid" was the right description.

In the UK, where I spend a fair fraction of my time, "liberal" means something quite different than in the US; it means "favoring less state intervention in both social and economic affairs". This seems like it ought to be the same thing as "libertarian" in the US, except that whenever I look at US "libertarian" writing, I get non-specifically nauseous and can't go beyond the first page. I don't know why that should be.

On the whole, I might "favor less state intervention in both social and economic affairs", so something along these lines ought to be attractive. In the US, though, there doesn't seem to exist this option?

Particularly, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of a contemporary low-government left. My impression is that that is where your own sympathies lie? Is there something of that sort you could point me at -- things to read or people/movements to look into?

Many thanks!


p.s. Caplan's home page is one of the most remarkable I have seen in recent years.

hoyhoy said...

The only thing missing on Caplan's home page are a few UFO abduction stories and HAARP conspiracy theories.

lizatblackrose said...

"Libertarian" means something different in the UK as well. I know British anarchists that are perpetual try to reclaim & recuperate the term (on Wikipedia, etc), but to little avail.

Historically, American anarchists have favored minimal government, but the contemporary anarchist movement seems to be more focused on anti-capitalism than anti-statism (and often with a not very sophisticated view of "capitalism," which they sometimes seem to equate with "all bad things").

lizatblackrose said...
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mtraven said...

Libertarianism is the default political ideology of a certain segment of the tech community. It's not that interesting in itself, IMO. There's a book about the history of the movement called "Radicals for Capitalism" that was recommended to me, but I haven't read it. Like "liberal", the word shifts its meaning over space and time -- it used to mean more like left-wing anarchism, but co-opted by right-wingers some time ago.

I guess I obsess about it because part of my geek nature is attracted to it, but I can also see what's wrong with it. Markets are decentralized! Self-organizing! Emergent! and all that good stuff. And it's true that they are and in fact arguing with libertarians has forced me to acknowledge that. The libertarians' problem comes from worshipping market solutions and a market-based view of reality to the exclusion of all other relevant information (like the fact that people who are too poor have little motivation to respect property rights, and people who are too rich don't have to).

Libertarianism has also become the default discourse of the right these days, because everyone loves to hate the government. Most of this is incoherent. A rule of thumb for evaluating net libertarians is whether they supported the Bush administration's wars and torture policies. There are plenty who do, and those can safely be dismissed as not really adhering to their own expressed values. There are also plenty who did't, and those are the ones I feel some kinship with.

Not all libertarians are stupid and/or crazed and/or hypocritical. Will Wilkinson seems intelligent, and there are academic libertarians who I find insightful (I particularly liked this paper by Daniel Klein called "The People's Romance" even though I was drawing diametrically opposed conclusions from it than the author intended).

I don't really have a very solid political ideology of my own these days, although I'm broadly left-libertarian in outlook. I have kids, I just want society to operate well enough that they have a future. You can't run a complex society without governance of some sort, and while there are alternatives to government for some pieces of the governance problem (see the recent post on Elinor Ostrom for instance) they don't cover everything.

I often point to the Internet as a good example of how government should work: they paid for the initial research and development, promulgated open standards, sheparded it from the research world to the commercial world, then largely left it alone to evolve. Whether that model can extend elsewhere I don't know, but it's a stunning success story that defeats the stupid versions of libertarianism.

crawfurdmuir said...

Of course women (and men as well) were freer in the nineteenth century than they are today, with respect to the application of state power. Private property rights were much less constrained by regulation in the nineteenth century than they are today - and women were certainly beneficiaries of that freedom as much as were men.

While this is the most significant area in which freedom was greater in the nineteenth century, there are many other instances as well. "Women's lib" advocates place great emphasis on free access to abortion. Historically, until the very late nineteenth century, abortion was not legally restricted in the U.S. Anti-abortion legislation was not in place in all states until after 1910. The "war on drugs" which has been such a pretext for the expansion of state power has its origins in this same "reform" era of American politics, with the Harrison Act of 1914.

Of course, it all depends on how one defines freedom. Barack Obama famously complained in 2001 that the Supreme Court of the 1960s "didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution" and that "the Warren court interpreted it generally in the same way that the Constitution is a document of negative liberties - says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you but it doesn't say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf..."

Surely both women and men were freer in this sense of "negative liberties," during the nineteenth century, than they are today.

I'm not a libertarian, but I certainly prefer the Founding Fathers' vision of "freedom from" to Mr Obama's notion of government doing things "on my behalf." Our society is divided into two classes - one on whose behalf the government does things, and another who bear the cost of those things. I belong to the latter, and understand - especially on April 15 - why so many who do call themselves libertarians.

David Chapman said...

Thanks, Liz & Mike. I've mostly found that I've gotten to have less and less opinions about politics over the years. I've gotten to have more opinions about economics as I've learned more about that; and the two are not altogether separable, obviously. Probably if I learned more about politics I'd have more opinions about it too.

I've gotten somewhat more interested recently in a roundabout way, through thinking about foundational issues in philosophy. Probably you can't actually derive any concrete political principles from foundations -- but there is some influence at least. Plato promulgated a sort of fascist metaphysics, so it's not surprising that his "Republic" was totalitarian.

Anyway, the foundational ideas I'm working with do seem to suggest some things about politics that might not be obvious -- but since I know so little about political theory, I don't know.


Liz said...

Over time I've tended to move away from axioms, ideologies, and philosophies to look more at lived experience in the real world.

Yes, I think freedom is generally a good thing, but modern-day libertarianism illustrates the problems of elevating it to a quasi-religious principle. I don't know any woman who would say women's quality of life was subjectively better in the 19th century, even though they may have had more "freedom" according to certain objective measures.

I feel similarly about leftists who, for example, think bolting a screw to a piece of metal in a factory for 8 hours is a satisfactory way of life if the enterprise is worker-owned, or proponents of participatory democracy that requires citizens to spend a significant proportion of their time learning about, debating, and voting of administrative minutiae.

Unlike Mike, I don't have kids, and given my age and socioeconomic status I don't think I'll personally experience the worst effects of any impending collapse. So I sometime look at as a morbidly fascinating experiment gone awry. Human intellectual evolution appears to have outstripped our emotional/interpersonal capacities. Just how much economic disparity & environmental degradation can the system take before it falls apart?