Posts Tagged ‘ideology’

Eric Posner’s article on Cass Sunstein is an excellent profile of the man’s views and positions and it also accurately summarises why I am happy about the Sunstein appointment.

Sunstein has strong liberal instincts—his work is animated by his concern for the rights and well-being of poor and vulnerable people and oppressed groups—and he believes that government is there to help. But what makes his work so interesting and influential is that he has a hard-headed appreciation of the problems of government, and has explored, with extraordinary imagination, approaches to regulation that harness the power of government without unduly infringing on people’s freedom or in other ways producing bad outcomes.

The approach that has received the most attention recently is Sunstein’s argument (with Dick Thaler) in support of what they call “libertarian paternalism,” government policies that help prevent errors that people predictably make because of cognitive biases (Sunstein is a prominent critic of the rational actor model used by economists) without interfering with the choices of sophisticated people who know their interests better than the government does. This book is a perfect example of how Sunstein thinks. He shares the liberal-friendly view that people do not always act in their rational self-interest and therefore benefit from government regulation, but he rejects the strongly paternalistic policies that have done more harm than good and are in any event politically unpopular and have led to backlash. His middle way is a sophisticated attempt to support a kind of regulation that might do some good and enjoy political support from both sides of the spectrum, and hence actually have a chance to persist across administrations and vicissitudes in public opinion.


Sunstein is one of the most talented academics around. With his deep knowledge of government regulation, he would be the perfect head of OIRA. Among the many people I have met in academia and government, he is one of the least ideologically rigid, one of the most open to argument and evidence. His critics should at least admit that he will give a fair hearing to their concerns. He would be an extraordinary asset for the Obama administration.

To read all Sunstein-tagged posts on this blog, click here.


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Of the Browne resolutions, I find this one particularly important:

I resolve to cleanse myself of hate, resentment, and bitterness. Such things steal time and attention from the work that must be done.

Related to which I’d like to resolve:

I will not let myself be poisoned with negative emotions by things I view as evil but have no power to eradicate.

For God knows, there are so many of them!

Of course, a simpler (though not easier) solution is to stop viewing them as evil. I confess that I have thought of that possibility in the past.

Which reminds of this story. Would you trade your knowledge and moral principles for a simpler, more ignorant existence where you would be happier? I wouldn’t. After all, even if I did, that happy person wouldn’t be me. And there are parts of me that I value higher than an optimum level of serotonin and dopamine.

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The latest issue of Reason magazine has a long op-ed titled “The Libertarian moment.” Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie make the case that we are at the threshold of a new age of freedom. They cite as evidence relaxing social norms, increased permissiveness and the `soft libertarianism’ that the internet age has spawned.

I would be happy to be proved wrong but I cannot help feel that this is just a puff piece designed to fit in with Reason’s 40th anniversary. Most of the examples they cite could as easily apply to liberalism. Homosexuality may be getting more acceptable but so is the idea that offending speech ought to be regulated. Marijuana may be easier to find but smoking is much harder. Anti-discrimination laws are becoming wider in scope every day; political correctness more pervasive.  The nanny-state is getting more obscene, government more bloated, the deficit is a monster.

Even the word libertarianism is under attempted hijack from some who call themselves libertarian, yet fail to see the fundamental difference between negative and positive liberty, and between social pressure and state coercion.

These are tough times to be a libertarian. Perhaps Welch and Gillespie are right and change is on the way. After all, they say that the darkest hour comes before dawn. Till I see the sun though, I see little reason to believe that things are going to really change anytime soon.

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I came across this old post by Tyler Cowen today:

The libertarian vice is to assume that the quality of government is fixed.  The libertarian also argues that the quality of government is typically low, and this is usually the bone of contention, but that is not the point I wish to consider.  Often that dispute is a red herring.

If the quality of government is fixed, the battle is then “government vs. market.”  Not everyone will agree with libertarian views, but libertarians are comfortable on this terrain.

But sometimes governments do a pretty good job, even if you like me are generally skeptical of government.  The Finnish government has supported superb architecture.  The Swedes have made a good go at a welfare state.  The Interstate Highway System in the U.S. was a high-return investment.  In the area of foreign policy, we have done a good job juggling the China-Taiwan relationship.  Or how about the Aswan Dam for Egypt?  You might contest these particular examples but I assure you there are many others.

Read the whole thing. I think posts like these are important not just because they are accurate but because they define certain paths to rationality ruin that any thinking individual should make sure to avoid.

Also, I found this bit amusing:

Libertarianism and modern liberalism differ in many regards, and usually I am closer to the libertarian point of view.  But I am also a contrarian by nature.  If you want to make me feel more like a modern liberal, just go ahead and commit The Libertarian Vice.

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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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A post over at the Art of The Possible asking for libertarian perspectives on blackmail law morphs into an interesting discussion on private property, coercion, reputation and related philosophical issues.

I have detailed my position on blackmail law and related issues in the comment thread linked above, so I will not expound on it here. However there is one sentence from one of the comments that is worth repeating, especially for the benefit of non-libertarians:

[a]n insight that appears elsewhere in libertarian thinking (e.g. prostitution), namely that it shouldn’t be illegal to sell what one can legally give away for free.

This is of course, standard fare for libertarians, as it follows directly from the non-aggression principle. Nonetheless, I think it is an important insight that deserves to be highlighted separately because it clarifies the libertarian position on a lot of issues (blackmail, prostitution, minimum wage, social gambling vs for-profit gambling)  and applies to a great many situations in a more obvious manner than the NAP does.

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