20 December 2014

Why I am a political weirdo

Recent discussions have indicated that lots of people expend a lot of time describing how awful and terrible other people's political beliefs are, and if only more people were like themselves how wonderful the world would be. Or let me rephrase that: ALL people expend their political opinions bloviating about how wonderful their views are and how terrible their opponents are. Or at least how wonderful they imagine their views to be and how terrible they have imagined their opponents to be.

Sometimes, as with the torture debate, it seems fairly clear that there are some awful people on one side. We can imagine, charitably, that they believed they had a good sound motive (protect the nation! national security!) for allowing the programme to go forward, while putting in place incompetent management and poor oversight or safeguards... Actually no. I can't imagine that wasn't on purpose.

In the case of libertarians and expressions therein I very often hear reactions, usually from progressives, as something like one of the following:
1) I can get behind abolishing the drug war/war on terror/police militarization and I'm not fond of all these bombs we are dropping on other countries, but your economic views are horrible.
2) Your economic views are horrible, therefore everything else you say is horrible (and I will disagree with it even if it ordinarily fits my worldview). Also you're probably a racist or some kind of Christian homeschooling nutjob or you have a shrine to Ayn Rand. This is also known as the straw man approach.

There are several possible reactions to this I have found.
1) Continue to pragmatically stress the positions that progressives do find palatable and hope they will work to further legislation diminishing the power of the state in these areas.
2) Bring up economics anyway to annoy people who probably never studied economics.
3) Bash Ayn Rand to demonstrate that you're not "one of those libertarians", whatever that means. Sometimes I get lucky and someone has actually read Adam Smith (rather than claimed to have read it) or heard of JS Mill.
4) Demonstrate that the "Tea Party" factually has almost nothing in common with libertarian philosophy. Also true of most Republicans.

One of the major problems I find is that economics, being a relative soft science is rather more malleable than physics or biology. People mold it to fit their views very often or accept and read studies that reinforce those views. Minimum wage studies are all over the place, both in methodology and conclusion. So it becomes a case of find your own oyster pearls. Economists tend to have much more "libertarian" perspectives than the average Joe/Jane over a variety of issues (they also tend to have much more "liberal" perspectives too), and this is also true of fairly well educated people, people with professional or graduate degrees of almost any type, so while there isn't a universal consensus, the purported experts seem to point in a general direction at least.

Still there isn't actually very strong evidence that markets "work" in all of these cases. There is sometimes good evidence that particular solutions attempted by governments do not work, or that markets will tend to work better than those solutions. But they don't always and inevitably work better than anything a government could try to do. Many libertarians seem to operate from an a priori conclusion that the government will fail, or will screw it up worse than a potential market failure. This is a central insight of the philosophy and psychology of a libertarian that allows us/them to be skeptical of proposed solutions coming from a centrally planned authority or regulator. But "skepticism" isn't the same thing as "denialism". If it works, or it works well enough that it isn't causing a huge fuss and mess of things, there's plenty of low hanging fruit of governments doing incredibly destructive or harmful things to large numbers of human beings for which our attention can be pointed in the meantime before coming back to these more marginal improvements to human freedom and autonomy.

This then brings to the central reasons I think libertarians are unpopular.
1) We spend a lot of time pointing out that something, usually something the state is doing, doesn't work. People don't like naysayers very much rather than more constructive criticisms. There often isn't a good story that can be told about how an open market operates to provide opportunities to people versus "this public official helped me in some way because of this program". Usually instead people have a story about an evil villain CEO working for some (often heavily government backed) corporation taking away their job and sending it overseas, or something in that vein as a basis for how the market has failed.

2) Very often public policies, constructed and conceived by both conservatives or progressives, are based around the assumptions that appearing to do something is important. Appearing to care about something means "we should do something, this is something, let's do it". Without much concern to the question of "hey, does that something actually do anything about your purported concerns for which you proposed doing something in the first place?" Or as a libertarian would object: "is that something actually a problem for which we need a public policy solution, or can we expect that people will eventually figure it out with solutions on their own?" Someone who runs around pointing out not only that some policy doesn't work very well, but also that it's a policy which is designed mostly to make it look like something was done, papering over that something possibly cannot be done, is going to be really, really unpopular.

An an example: I am extremely sensitive to the problems of racial disparities and injustices from studying the criminal justice system and I can go down a list of things that I'd rather see us up end and abolish because of the massive negative impacts they have for the lived experiences and opportunities of minorities or immigrants. But I'm also skeptical that say, affirmative action in college acceptances or job promotions is a good way to help us resolve racial disparities in opportunities. I don't think it's impossible it could be helping, but I'd rather abolish or at least severely limit the drug war or return many economic and political rights to ex-felons, or abolish many occupational licensing requirements, or improve our K-12 inner city educational experiences (including our disciplinary structure), and on and on down the line. Most of those are things I can conceive immediate benefits. They are low-hanging fruit that would probably benefit minorities most of all and they are things for which I've had a long history of supporting us as a country or state or town putting forward some legislative and legal action on suppressing our currently destructive habits of governance. Affirmative action meanwhile has a mixed economic record, doesn't seem to have done much about racial disparity in this country as a whole, and seems to concentrate its benefits among people who are, if not in need of some assistance to overcome a substantial social problem like racism, also may not be that poor or under served in education and other public and private resources. Maybe this is because of poor design, which is a common problem in many social welfare programmes in this country and others. Maybe there's a lot of economic noise that makes it harder to see large scale benefits. Or maybe it's just not that helpful. It isn't an enormous cost to society to try to promote people of a distinct ethnic background, and one can readily understand there may be potential benefits for people to try to do so anyway through intellectual and creative diversity that accrues from the likely diverse life experiences (and the same applies to having women promoted into higher positions of employment). But there's still those other things we are doing which have enormous costs and preclude enormous benefits and it should seem strange to people that we can do this more or less symbolic thing to help and not those things.

Something that should occur to anyone reading though is that actually the questions involved about how best to help the poor or the suffering, the sick, the elderly, how to provide public goods and solve questions of externalities are not generally rejected by libertarians (some do). There's a wide disagreement even amongst libertarians on how to resolve these, or whether they are within the scope of a small state to do, and a wide gulf between that and how the typical person finds it appropriate to do so via the usually larger and more robust state they envision. There are some cartoon libertarians who put forward the "screw the poor" foot. There are people who do not have a firm grasp upon what the term means and apply it because maybe they think it sounds cool. There are people are libertarian-ish (which is probably where I come in), there are left-leaning libertarians (again, also me, where I could describe myself as "a liberal who likes markets"), civil libertarians (again, me) and so on through the litany of woe available for ideological selections.

Generally what divides "libertarians" from "everyone else" is two things:

1) A very strong and often narrow moral preference for providing liberty and autonomy to individuals and thus for removing the state as an oppressive agent (this used to be defined as "liberalism"). This preference is present at turns for other people but isn't as intense, and many people provide exemptions for their pet causes to reduce autonomy or liberty in others (narcotics, abortion, large sodas, tobacco, etc).

In general the libertarian is likely to be libertine about using the power of the state to police our objections in the behavior of others that is not obviously harmful to others in a live and let live manner. So don't pollute your neighbour's property, or kill your neighbour, or steal his things or commit some manner of fraud in your dealings with him, or sexually assault anyone, or we the public will be compelled to act and respond with criminal sanctions via the instrument of the state. But if you want to complain about your neighbour's musical choices or offensive and bigoted statements or dietary habits or sexual promiscuity go right ahead. Just don't expect the rest of us to be compelled to act upon it.

2) A much stronger skepticism that a particular intervention by the state is either needed at all or a means of improving the plight of some particular set of individuals. This is to say, among other varieties of objections: that we are skeptical that either the state can resolve an issue via a proposed and particular means of action, or more generally that the state will contain itself to those proposed means or use those proposed powers only for this approved upon issue. Or as a specific objection, to say that whether or not the state could do something, it's unlikely to work out better and sooner than letting things run their course through the normal operation of markets and thus unnecessary for the state to intercede. This is usually described as "having faith in markets" and often people point to specific instances where markets have failed, but often not engaging that in many of those cases, we were not dealing with free and open markets but strictly controlled and tightly regulated markets where the exercise of state power favored and protected the abusive firms seen as at fault. One way this manifests is to say that libertarians are skeptical that complex and extensive regulatory states will not be captured and used by the entities they mean to control and that they differ widely on the proposed solution to this as a problem being "more regulation" or "more regulators" to be more like simpler and smoother and more transparent regulatory states.

The division is not "we hate poor people" or "we worship rich people". This is an amusing straw man. The division is also not "we'd like there to be total anarchy so that the powerful could establish their own versions of oppression" as is often implied in the "you're a libertarian, why don't you go move to Somalia" idiocy. These divisions are common probably because libertarians aren't very good at story telling in part, relying on a somewhat impersonal process of millions of market based decisions to result in positive outcomes. But they're also common because it's preferable to try to publicly dismiss ideological opponents by providing them the worst possible motives. "They're trying to destroy the country" or "they are bigots". And so on. This preference is mostly lazy thinking. It doesn't require engagement or skepticism about politics. And most of us don't want to put in the engagement or skepticism required to understand carefully complicated issues at hand in most political policy questions anyway. We're much better at taking out our privately held stock of strawmen.
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