Down with Policy Libertarianism

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Fri Dec 26 17:30:52 PST 2008


The Distributed Republic

Down with Policy Libertarianism

Submitted by Jacob Lyles on Wed, 2008-12-24 22:51. Public

Libertarian thinkers can be plotted on many axes. Presently, the axis  
I am most concerned with is Policy Libertarianism vs. Structural  
Policy Libertarians (PLs) include the vast majority of the most  
visible organizations and writers in the modern libertarian movement:  
the Reason Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Ron Paul campaign, the  
LP, the Constitution Party, most libertarian economists (e.g. Milton  
Friedman), and single-issue organizations like Students for a Sensible  
Drug Policy. PLs, as their name suggests, focus their energies on  
inventing and advocating a list of policies that governments should  
follow. For example, you can find policy libertarians opposing liberal  
eminent domain laws, fighting for lower taxes and deregulation,  
supporting cultural tolerance, opposing invasive police searches, and  
advocating the rest of the familiar libertarian manifesto.
Structural Libertarians (SLs) are much rarer in modern times than PLs,  
although the opposite used to be the case. Structural libertarians  
include Patri Friedman, Mencius Moldbug, David Friedman, Murray  
Rothbard, all libertarian Public Choice economists, Lysander Spooner,  
and the classical liberals that libertarians have adopted as  
intellectual ancestors. SLs often have the same moral and policy  
beliefs as PLs, but they focus their energies on the alternative ways  
to structure a government and the effect that government structure has  
on its incentive to adopt good policy. At their most extreme, SLs  
barely sound like libertarians. Under a market-based government system  
(a common SL proposal), the architects of Singapore would likely find  
plenty of customers for a burbclave that is incredibly prosperous and  
clean, but where communists are sent to jail and litterbugs are  
viciously beaten with sticks.

The decline of the structuralists and the rise of the policyists is a  
phenomenon that should interest us. It is a by-product of general  
political trends in the modern western world. Simply: democracy has  
won. Democracy is considered to be righteousness and goodness and  
freedom, all else is tyranny. Didn't the American colonists risk their  
lives and fortunes to institute democracy and overthrow monarchy? And  
wasn't America the shining example on a hill, leading the rest of the  
world into a democratic century?

Today all competing political ideas acknowledge this. Conservatism,  
libertarianism, liberalism, environmentalism, socialism, and  
nationalism are all strictly policy movements. Since our government  
structure is assumed to be sound, they focus on advancing their  
agendas through electoral politics.
But what if democracy is not the impartial "marketplace of ideas" that  
moderns assume? What if liberal democracy contains its own unwholesome  
incentives and biases? In other words, what if the game is rigged?

This is why policy libertarianism seems like a weak and incomplete  
philosophy to me. Presumably if libertarians believe that libertarian  
policies are just and beneficial, then they would want to live in a  
world where those policies are implemented. However, if the incentives  
of the political system are stacked against libertarianism, then their  
efforts advocating libertarian policies are futile. No amount of  
pamphleteering and blogging will make vast amounts of people act  
against their self-interest. Quoting Jefferson at housewives isn't  
going to sway them when Obama Claus is on the television offering free  
college educations and health insurance. Putting 51% of the country on  
welfare programs and then campaigning to enlarge the payments will  
remain a winning strategy no matter how many DVDs of "Freedom to  
Fascism" are printed.

Policy libertarianism is only valid in a particular time and place,  
and then only if you have certain beliefs about the political system  
at that juncture.PL is useless otherwise. If we kidnap Ron Paul and  
ship him back in time to live under the Bourbon Dynasty in France,  
what should he do? Presumably he still thinks that libertarianism is  
as just and wise in Bourbon France as it is in 21st century America.  
Should he write florid epistles to the king, trying to convince him of  
the value of universal human rights? Should he try to marry a princess?

Or suppose we send Ron Paul to live under a government run by evil  
robots that grow humans in vats and then suck out their life force to  
power their machines in some physics-defying green energy scheme.  
Likely Ron still thinks the evil machines should respect his property  
rights and freedom of speech. I don't see how Ron's beliefs matter  
very much. He is going to have to hire a damn good lobbyist to  
overcome the sway of the human-vat-maker union.

Under an incompatible government structure, policy libertarianism is  
an impotent philosophy. As soon as your faith in liberal democracy  
wavers, PL looks naive. It's as useless as a lawn ornament. It's  
gazelle trying diplomacy with lions.

My faith in democracy is at a low ebb, so I think structural  
libertarianism should be given more thought and policy libertarianism  
less. As one of the 200 million most influential people in America and  
one of the 20 most influential writers on this blog, I hope I can lead  
the libertarian discussion in that direction.

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