Five Responses to Eggers and O'Leary's "Five Reasons Why Libertarians Shouldn't Hate Government"
By Bryan Caplan
EconLog reader Justin Longo asked me to respond to Eggers and O’Leary’s “Five Reasons Why Libertarians Shouldn’t Hate Government.” Here goes, point-by-point:
E&O’s Reason #1: Bad government leads to bigger, badder government.
societies where people distrust large institutions–whether
government or big business–the demand for more regulation and for
more government is higher, even when government is incompetent or
E&O might be right that cynicism about government perversely increases support for government. But if so, libertarians shouldn’t attack the public’s justified cynicism. Instead, they should help people see the logical anti-government conclusion of their cynicism. Academics who are cynical about government generally are anti-government; see for yourself at the Public Choice Society meetings. Why not teach laymen to make the same connection?
E&O’s Reason #2: To shrink government, you need to love
Until small-government types better master the nuts and bolts of
the public sector–how to design policies that work in the real
world and how to execute on large public undertakings–their
initiatives to downsize government will continue to disappoint.
There may be something to this; unfortunately, it is also true that those who love government don’t want to shrink it. It’s a conundrum.
The least-bad solution in my view: Follow your libertarian conscience. If you’re a moderate libertarian, maybe you can make government less bad without hating yourself. If you’re a hard-core libertarian, stay out of government. To quote the underrated 8mm, “If you dance with the devil, the devil don’t change. The devil changes you.” Hard-core libertarians’ comparative advantage is to play watchdog for moderate libertarians – and make them seem reasonable by comparison.
E&O’s Reason #3: Market-based reforms are not self-executing.
Without a keen appreciation of the process by which legislation
and programs are designed and implemented, efforts to move from
monopoly to markets carry a high risk of failure.
This is true for privatization of state assets and partial deregulation, but not true in general. Simple-minded abolition often works great. Eliminating price controls or legalizing kidney sales does not require complex design or implementation. Once again, though, there’s a useful division of labor between moderate and radical libertarians. Moderates shepherd reforms through; radicals watch the moderates and make them seem reasonable by comparison.
E&O’s Reason #4: Government bashing alienates those you want to
Incessant government-bashing may make you feel good, but
alienates most everybody who knows and loves a police officer,
firefighter, teacher, social worker, anyone who has ever collected
an unemployment check, and anyone who saw NASA put a man on the
This sounds wise, but dodges an important issue. There’s nothing wrong with growing wheat, so you can criticize government provision without impugning the character of government wheat farmers. But what if government is doing something that no one should do? If you think that drug prohibition and immigration restrictions are crimes against humanity – and they are – the people who apply these laws are, well, criminals. If E&O reject these examples, it is easy to construct other examples (involving slavery, Nazis, etc.) that they do accept. The sad fact is that many positions are true, yet extremely unpalatable to the public.
E&O’s Reason #5: Nobody will care what you know until they know you
Many voters today may indeed want smaller
government, but what they want most of all is competent government.
In addition to pointing out the flaws of government, free-marketers
also need to communicate a genuine interest in the effective
performance of the important duties of government.
Again, it matters what government is doing. If it’s providing an otherwise legitimate service, E&O make a fair point. I’m a professor in a state university. If I figure out a low-cost way to better teach my students, I do it. If government is persecuting drug users or illegal immigrants, on the other hand, incompetence really is good.
In any case, E&O neglect libertarians’ comparative advantage. There are millions of non-libertarians who want to improve government efficiency, compared to thousands of libertarians who want to shrink government. Libertarians should focus on the latter task, because if we don’t do it, no one will.