The Stages of Libertarian Denial
By Bryan Caplan
Libertarians set themselves apart from other political thinkers by habitually denying that government should do things. Denial is therefore at the heart of libertarian thought. Thanks to pop psychology, unfortunately, “denial” has come to mean “refusing to admit the truth” rather than “refusing to admit what others claim.” But denial is still a concept worth holding onto.
Once you appreciate the role of denial in libertarianism, you’re ready to categorize it. Playing off of pop psychology, I find it most useful to think about six stages of libertarian denial.
Stage 1: Deny the problem exists. Ex: When someone complains about Chinese imports, the libertarian says, “What’s the problem? They’re selling us cheap stuff.”
Stage 2: Blame the problem on the government. Ex: “Sure, Third World poverty is terrible. But without their governments’ statist economic policies – and our immigration restrictions – they’d already be rich.”
Stage 3: Admit that the government didn’t cause the problem, but insist that government action would only make the problem worse. Ex: Opposing price controls for grain after a severe drought. “The market is making the best out of a terrible situation. You’re going to destroy the incentives that will get us out of this disaster.”
Stage 4: Concede that government action wouldn’t make the problem worse, but say that the cure is so expensive that we’re better off just living with the problem. Ex: Opposing handicap accessibility regulations. “It’s going to cost 1% of GDP. For that price, we could give every handicapped person three full-time helpers.”
Stage 5: Admit that government action could solve a problem at a low cost, but claim that the libertarian principle is more important.” Ex: “Freedom means tolerating the very views that you find most abhorrent – even Satanism.”
Stage 6: Yield on libertarian principle, but try to minimize the deviation. Ex: “Yes, government has to supply some roads. But we can still fund them with user fees, not taxes.”
I suspect that what sets me apart from the typical libertarian is that I lean especially heavily on Stage 1. On discrimination, for example, I think that (a) taste-based discrimination is almost entirely eliminated by market forces, and that (b) statistical discrimination is at worst a venial sin.
How would you position other libertarian thinkers on the stages of libertarian denial? Yourself?