Worst Advice to Libertarians Ever?
By Bryan Caplan
I’m not sure if Tyler Cowen’s advice to libertarians is the worst any serious thinker has ever given us. But it’s up there. I’d like to give my dear friend and benefactor a charitable reading, but I just can’t. Stripped of its rhetorical grace, Tyler’s essay basically makes two big points:
1. We’re really rich, so libertarians should quit trying to roll back the New Deal, even though we’re basically right:
We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.
Let’s not obsess over all the interventions represented by the New Deal, even though I would agree that most of those policies were bad ideas.
It’s hard to make any sense of this argument. If Tyler was trying to help libertarians overcome psychological depression by saying, “Sure, we live under statism, but cheer up – you’re rich!” he’d have a point. But “Sure, the New Deal was a bad idea, but quit fighting it – you’re rich!” makes no sense. In fact, the richer you personally are, the more spare resources you have to argue against bad ideas.
But what about Tyler’s argument that prosperity and the growth of government are a “package deal”? Again, it’s hard to make sense of this. There’s got to be more to being a “package deal” than the fact that two things both happened. Here’s the closest that Tyler comes to arguments that prosperity and more government are a “package deal”:
The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand.
The first argument is trivial. With statist preferences, more wealth brings more government. How is that a reason to quit arguing against statist preferences? You could just as easily tell an atheist that more wealth brings more religion – and he’d naturally respond, “It wouldn’t if people knew the truth – and I aim to tell them.”
The second argument builds on the strange assumption that libertarians have made government work better in any sense other than making it do less. Maybe Gore’s “good government” panel made government work better. But as Tyler has previously complained, libertarians barely acknowledge variation in the quality of governance.
2. Libertarians should jump on the scare-mongering bandwagon and start worrying about global warming, epidemics, and nuclear proliferation – not to mention asteroids.
But contrary to Tyler’s suggestion, libertarians have been thinking about scary predictions for a long time. Remember Julian Simon? Long story short: (a) Scary stories are usually greatly exaggerated; (b) Government “corrections” are quite likely to make problems worse; (c) Liberty will suffer in the bargain. The “War on Terror” inspired by the 9/11 attacks provides a nice confirmation of these deep lessons.
The bottom line is that libertarians need to pay attention to these issues because non-libertarians are eager to do something about them. But libertarians’ skeptical presumption against both the likelihood of disaster and the likelihood that government will avert disaster is wise and justified. Journalists (John Stossel excepted) should be learning from us, not the other way around.
The underlying theme of Tyler’s essay is that “times have changed, and libertarians need to change with them.” As he puts it: “America in the mid to late 1970s was a wreck, and libertarians indeed had a lot of the right answers.”
But frankly, I see no reason why Tyler couldn’t have written virtually the same essay in 1975. By historical standards, we were really rich then, too. Gas queues and 10% inflation were hardly the end of the world. Furthermore, in 1975 we also faced an array of threatening menaces. At least one – the Soviet threat – looked far worse than anything we live with today. If Tyler is right that libertarians had a lot of the right answers in the ’70’s, then we still do today.