Libertarianism and Social Interaction

Via David Henderson, I came upon this essay by John Edward Terrell in the New York Times criticizing libertarians and Tea Party types for favoring individualism.  What a morass of confusion!

To begin with, Terrell conflates (1) the appropriateness of respecting individual rights, (2) the moral question, how we should act, and (3) the psychological question, how we are likely to act.  He seems to believe that libertarians believe that we should have absolute individual rights, that it is moral to be selfish, and that we are likely to be so.

These are old mistakes, but it is sad how often libertarianism is rejected for these mistaken reasons.

1. First, it is true that libertarians believe that people should have individual rights, but it is not because our actions have no effect on other people. Libertarians recognize that we are interconnected and argue that our mode of interaction should not be through coercion but through voluntary associations.  Social interactions work better through voluntary associations.

Goods and services are better provided through a competitive market than through monopoly government provision.  Similarly, in a free society, as de Tocqueville saw, people form voluntary associations to serve community ends and these associations generally work better than government does through coercion.    

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Mario Rizzo on Classical Liberals and Libertarians

My old friend Mario Rizzo has a great post up on classical liberalism and libertarianism.  The post discusses how to distinguish the two different political theories.  Interestingly, Mario does not follow the more common distinction – for example adopted by Richard Epstein – that classical liberalism is more moderate than libertarianism, because the former accepts the need for government to promote public goods.  Mario notes that the “philosophy of liberty has always admitted of gradations or degrees” and that classical liberals such as Lysander Spooner, Auberon Herbert, and Benjamin Tucker were radicals. Instead, Mario argues that “Classical liberalism is the philosophy of…

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Contraceptives, Immigration, and the Great Libertarian Convergence


A plausible interpretation of America and the world at the moment is that the imperatives of the 21st century global marketplace are so powerful they trump anything religious and political leaders say or do.

Techno-economic change does not, to be sure, trump anything and everything that nature might do. We recently had the near-miss of the stormy sun disrupting our electric grid and plunging us into the 18th century, and experts think there’s a 12 percent that could still actually happen over the next decade. That’s a lot more scary, if you think about it, than the possible long-term effects on the climate of anthropogenic global warming, although I’ll admit there’s an inconvenient truth or two there, too.

There’s also, of course, the disturbingly successful indifference of Putin and ISIS to the market, and the maybe more disturbing agility by which the Chinese manage to be both authoritarian nationalists and techno-cagey capitalists.

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Deconstructing the Transhumanist Impulse

Her filmLibertarian futurists such as Tyler Cowen and Brink Lindsey sometimes write as if the point of all our remarkable techno-progress—the victory of capitalism in the form of the creative power of “human capital”—is some combination of the emancipatory hippie spirit of the 1960s with the liberty in the service of individual productivity of Reagan’s 1980s. Cowen says “the light at end of the tunnel” is the coming of a world in which we will have plenty of everything, and all the time in the world to play enjoyable games. Lindsey writes that Karl Marx’s view of communism was wrong in only one respect: In order to live in a world of bohemian enjoyment, we’ll need to remain productive.

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Law and Moral Obligation II: A Response to Ilya Somin

Ilya Somin has posted an essay at Volokh that narrows that gap between our views on the source of the moral obligation to obey the law—I certainly agree, for example, that there are exigent circumstances in which one might be not merely entitled but obliged to disobey—but our underlying disagreement persists: whether the calculation itself is an individual or a political one.

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The Idiocracy and Its Discontents

Economic inequality in the country is rapidly increasing. But our libertarians are right that inequality, by itself, hardly undermines the case for liberty.

A free country is a place where everyone is getting better off, although some, because of their hard work and natural gifts, more than others. Libertarians always point to the progress of technology as benefitting us all. Everyone is living longer, or at least everyone responsible enough to attend to what we can all know about avoiding the risk factors that imperil our health. In our march toward indefinite longevity and even the Singularity—the moment in time when machines are smarter than humans— it might be reasonable to hope that few will be left behind. And almost everyone benefits from the constant improvement and plummeting cost of the “screen”—from the smart phone to the tablet and laptop to the huge flat-screened TV.

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America’s Way Back


Friedrich Hayek once noted that “A successful free society will always in large measure be a tradition-bound society.” In pursuit of Hayek's wisdom, this podcast with Donald Devine, author of America's Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and the Constitution focuses on his attempt to revive fusionism by harmonizing freedom and tradition in the manner once proposed by Frank Meyer. While conservatives and libertarians have long been fractured, Meyer attempted in a series of essays almost fifty years ago to find the principles that would unite them. He observed that individual freedom emerges from the religious and moral heritage of the West.…

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Has there been a political turn at the Washington Post?

Interesting things are happening at the Washington Post. 1. The Volokh Conspiracy has moved to the Post’s website. 2. Libertarian reporter/blogger Radley Balko has moved to the Post. 3. Ezra Klein, an influential progressive columnist/blogger is leaving the Post. Together, these represent a significant change in the Post’s website from progressivism towards libertarianism. It is true that the Post, although a clearly liberal newspaper, has included conservative voices among its columnists, such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer. But this appears to be a move towards libertarians on the web. The most obvious explanation for the change is that Jeff Bezos is changing the direction of…

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How Should a Classical Liberal Society Count the Beliefs and Values of People Who Are Not Classical Liberals?

I have long been a libertarian, although the type of libertarianism that I follow has changed over time. Initially, I was a natural rights libertarian of the Nozickian type, but over time I became a consequentialist influenced by Friedrick Hayek and Richard Epstein. Over time, I also became more moderate moving from night watchmen state conception to a classical liberal position.

All of these positions more or less fall within the libertarian tradition broadly understood. But there is one issue where I believe that the tradition has not adequately taken matters into account. What does one do when others do not agree with libertarianism? Suppose that one is within a country with nonlibertarians. How should one live together?

The initial answer given by libertarians is that the people of differing views should live together and respect one another’s rights. In such a world, individual liberty allows everyone to pursue their values, and it is not necessary for one person to impose their values on others. While I find that convincing, let’s suppose that someone else does not accept the argument. They have a different understanding about the facts and/or values. They believe that free markets harm the poor and therefore should be restricted. Or they believe that people should be required to help the worse off, even if they do not want to.

The traditional libertarian response is to say to such people, “You are wrong to coerce others, and I will not let you do so, if I can stop you.” While this is a correct response from a narrow libertarian perspective, it is not clear that it is right from the broader perspective of social morality.

I look at the issue from the perspective of a welfare consequentialist (that is, a kind of utilitarian). Under that approach, people with nonlibertarian factual beliefs or values affect what the optimal institutions should be. Imagine, as I believe, that classical liberal institutions are the optimal ones from a welfare consequentialist perspective. They produce the greatest liberty and wealth for people in the society (and other goodies as well, but I shall ignore those in this post). So, for a society of classical liberals, those institutions would clearly be the best ones.

But now introduce a significant number of modern liberals (sometimes called welfare liberals), who believe in larger government and more redistribution than classical liberals do. How does that change the analysis of the optimal institutions?

From a welfare consequentialist perspective, there are at least two important consequences of the existence of welfare liberals. First, if welfare liberals strongly dislike the classical liberal institutions, then they are far less likely to support the system. In particular, if we assume that the constitution embodies these classical liberal principles, then the welfare liberals may become alienated from the polity. A polity needs its citizens to support its institutions and if the citizens strongly oppose the policy, they may not exhibit the necessary degree of support. Thus, additional support for the laws and constitution may be derived if there is a compromise between classical liberal and modern liberal institutions.

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How to Think About the Birth Dearth

In various lectures and publications, I’ve had occasion to call attention to the problem of the “birth dearth,” the fact that the birth rate has dropped below–often well below–the rate of replacement in just about every prosperous and high-tech country.

The relevant facts are laid out for our country (if hardly for the first time) in Jonathan V. Last’s thoughtful and accessible What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. I can’t resist immediately making the point that American “disaster theory” is going in two different directions. One pole is all about climate change (warming) and the ecological disaster. The other is population change (declining) as the disaster for “social” (as opposed to natural) ecology. There’s obviously something unnatural or “manmade” about both disasters. And in both cases, the claim for disaster might slight the singular capacity of our species to ingeniously adapt to change of all kinds.

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