Archive for November, 2008

Sometimes, Tyler Cowen is in a class of his own.

Via Angus (and do read his snark on TFP), here is Paul Samuelson:

Libertarians are not just bad emotional cripples. They are also bad advice givers.

[…] When I see people writing sentences of this kind, I imagine them pressing a little button which makes them temporarily less intelligent.  Because, indeed, that is how one’s brain responds when one employs this kind of emotionally charged rhetoric.

As you go through life and read various writers, I want you to keep this idea of the button in mind.  As you are reading, think “Ah, he [she] is pressing the button now!”


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Britain, where prostitution is now legal, wants to turn back the clock and criminalize it again. And like the Swedish, they have taken a bizarre but politically correct position — it will now be illegal to pay for sex but legal to sell it.

As Home Secretary Jacqui Smith put it:

Basically, if it means fewer people are able to go out and pay for sex I think that would be a good thing.

Never mind the fact that you are preventing consenting adults from engaging in an activity that should be no one else’s business.

Smith’s statement also implicitly accepts the proposition that if something is ‘good’, the government ought to force it by law. This assumption is sadly, rather widespread, and goes to the heart of my post from yesterday. The basic premise of libertarianism is that while there may be various levels of ‘badness’, most of them do not qualify for state censorship. The personal is not the political. The moral is not the legal.

It’s funny how governments worldwide share a common disregard for individual liberty and a collective disrespect for reason in their glorious lumping together of the illegal, the immoral, the bad, the unpopular, the merely unpleasant and the illogical. Or maybe it is not so funny.

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Radley Balko has some unsolicited — and thoughtful — advice for the new president elect.

Even if Barack does just one (any one) of the things Radley suggests, it will be wonderful.

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And the moral is not the legal.

It is a distinction that often seems to be lost. Admittedly, most people, when faced with the distasteful, the unpleasant or the unfair have a natural impulse to ‘ban it’. That is an emotional response. As we grow up, we learn to separate the emotional from the rational. Libertarianism simply takes this ability to make distinctions to its logical conclusion.

Of course social and personal issues are important and they need to be addressed. It is a worthy goal to oppose hateful, discriminatory, bigoted or irrational conduct. The right way to do that however is by social means, such as ostracization or education. It is wrong to pretend that no harm is done by letting the political into the personal. Moreover, even when one is using purely social means to stop a harmful practice, it is important to keep the political-personal distinction in mind.

As Todd Seavey puts it in this excellent post:

Libertarianism’s chief strength, then, has always been in recognizing the vast gulf between, on one hand, myriad, never-ending social complaints (along with the conflicting social philosophies built around them) and, on the other hand, the minuscule and tightly constrained range of things that rise (or, if you prefer, fall) to the level of political/legal complaints.

The more causes for political complaint people believe themselves to have, the more likely a total state becomes. If selling trans fats — or simply calling a woman fat — is deemed an assault on social justice, a Kafkaesque web of petty laws becomes more likely.

[…] Maybe it’s high time we formulated a more-explicitly tiered language for talking about such distinctions, though: wrong vs. illegal vs. ought-to-be-illegal — grey area, merely unpleasant, bad idea but not really morally-loaded, etc. — since these things so often get lumped together. Libertarianism, though, like no other philosophy, hinges on recognizing these distinctions rather than treating That Which Is Bad as necessarily deserving of simultaneous avoidance, moral condemnation, outlawing, punishment by God, etc., etc., etc.

Most of my posts have been concerned with laws that arise from this failure to distinguish between the moral and the legal. There is the obscenity law, laws against prostitution, laws forbidding discrimination and hate speech, laws that regulate freedom of association, blackmail law and so on. Do these laws improve the ability of some people (the alleged victims) to make more out of their lives? Doubtful, but let us assume that they do. However, even then, any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that such laws are immoral.


That is not to say that all laws in this complex world can be straitjacketed into a strict property-rights system. First of all, property rights can be tricky to define in the borders. Secondly, we need to make sure that whatever political system we are proposing is sustainable. The real world is full of political ambiguities. A dogmatically libertarian state just isn’t in the cards, the poor aren’t going to magically go away, deregulation will hurt some people. Finally liberty may be the basic moral good but it is not the only good one needs to survive. And people on the edge will always choose survival first.

In short, we do need to worry about the consequences of everything, even libertarian prescriptions. I believe that it does make sense to have a certain level of mandatory taxation, even if some of that money will necessarily go into projects you do not support. It does make sense to have a certain minimum degree of redistribution and welfare to ensure equilibrium and also to help develop the basic capacities to exercise freedom in children. It makes sense to have compulsory security checks in certain places and it most certainly makes sense to prevent private citizens from acquiring nuclear weapons. It may even make sense to mandate certain consumer protection laws — such as those that deal with information disclosure — though I am less convinced about this. And so on.

What does not make sense, is to pretend that laws like the above —  all of which restrict some basic individual rights — are morally neutral/superior or liberty enhancing. They may be necessary and they may increase the happiness of many people and depending on my rational and empirical analysis of the particular issue I might even support them — but to claim that those laws are anything other than a necessary evil is unlibertarian.

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I would not be doing my job as a libertarian blogger if I did not link to the blog war between Todd Seavey on the one hand and Kerry Howley/Will Wilkinson on the other (with minor roles played by Helen Rittelmeyer and Julian Sanchez). The best link (in the sense that it points to almost all the other relevant links) is the post by Todd above; navigate from there! Keep in mind that all the characters in the fight are multiply related — not only are they all writers for Reason magazine but there is a complex boyfriend/girlfriend/ex-boyfriend web that connects them — as Todd triumphantly describes. Enjoy!

I will not take sides except to say that in their own ways, both Todd and Kerry are right. Todd is right in what the political or legislative aspect of libertarianism ought to concern itself with. State coercion is fundamentally different from social coercion, maximizing negative liberties is the correct political prescription, property rights do lie at the heart of freedom.

Let me be clear — I am not dismissing the importance of positive liberty. However, demands that too much positive liberty be provided by the state invariably leads to authoritarianism, as history has shown again and again. Moreover, the curtailment of your basic property and personal rights, in a purely moral sense, is in a different plane from not being able to make the most of your life. If anything, this distinction between negative and positive liberty (and between state and social coercion) is the essence of libertarianism.

But Kerry is also right that situations exist that do not involve state coercion but nonetheless are liberty-restricting, at least in the way the term ‘liberty’ is commonly used. The question is what is the right way to address these problems. If Kerry believes the correct way is through voluntary, social means, then I am completely with her. If, on the other hand, she thinks that the law should step in, then I agree with Todd that her views are incompatible with libertarianism.

As for Will Wilkinson, I do not quite know what to make of him. He is obviously very smart. He has written gloriously intelligent posts in the past — like this one — that are logically and intellectually perfect. He has, on multiple occasions, authored passionate defences of libertarianism such as this post from only a few weeks back. He has also written sentences like this:

[If libertarianism is the view] that coercive limits to liberty are justified only in defense of private property, or in the enforcement of contracts, then libertarianism is false, and I am not a libertarian.

which convince me that in his moral core he is not a libertarian but a liberal; it is only his impeccable analysis that so often lead him to libertarian solutions. I guess I’ll still take the bargain!

All this of course, reminds me of this gem of an anecdote by Milton Friedman:

I particularly recall a discussion [by a group of libertarian economists] on this issue, in the middle of which Ludwig Von Mises stood up, announded to the assembly “You are all a bunch of socialists”, and stormed out of the group.

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Musical bliss

I received the 100 Best Opera Classics in the mail today!

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There is still no cure for AIDS, but science has come a long way towards controlling it. Antiretroviral therapy has progressed so much in the last two decades that, according to current reports, a person who started taking the drugs at age 20 will on average live another 43 years.

And we can expect the science to keep getting better. Thus, a man in his 20’s who gets infected with HIV today can probably expect to live — by a conservative estimate — to his 70’s. That’s a remarkable state of affairs for a disease that only a decade ago was equated with a death sentence.

Of course, I still recommend that you use condoms when there is no intent to procreate!

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