Motives and Outcomes
By David Henderson
In a comment on my post yesterday, Will Wilkinson defended his parallel between Republicans and Democrats. I had granted him that there were parallels in their hypocrisy. But he went further, writing:
I think some libertarians and conservatives are annoyed by my specific example of this pattern because they genuinely think federalism is instrumental to freedom. But one can accept that this is generally true, as I do, while also accepting that arguments for decentralized government are often motivated by the desire to protect illiberal local policy.
I grant that desire. But commenter John Thacker pointed out the problem with Will’s reasoning, writing:
So the ends protect liberty especially in the long-run (mostly through the power of exit), the means protect liberty and use arguments of liberty, but some people might have unseemly motives?
Thacker’s point reminds me of two things. One is Adam Smith’s famous quote about motives:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
In other words, we don’t judge merchants to be bad because they’re out to promote their own interest. In fact, we depend on their being out to promote their own interest. So why should be judge politicians and potential political allies differently?
And he [Higgs] dismisses what in his own view is the most fundamental retrenchment of government power in our time — the abolition of the draft in 1973. Richard Nixon, Higgs argues, did away with the draft for reasons of political expediency rather than out of any regard for individual rights. Higgs is probably correct about Nixon’s motives. But so what? If politicians start offering us additional freedom because their political self-interest dictates it, isn’t that a refreshing reversal? Like Higgs, I would prefer to see our leaders whittle down the government on principle. But I’ll take freedom any way I can get it.