By Arnold Kling
The uneasy relationship between Rothbard and Hayek is echoed to this day, with such modern Hayekian libertarians as Virginia Postrel (former editor of Reason magazine) and Will Wilkinson lamenting the conflation of their thought with Rothbard-style beliefs. All sorts of intra-libertarian squabbles follow along the same rough lines of the no-compromise, anti-statist Rothbardians versus the more classical liberal, utilitarian, fallibilist, prudential Hayekians. The differences in ultimate political ends are often also reflected in differences in tone and willingness to engage–as opposed to rail against–the standard bastions of mainstream power and influence.
This discussion made me want to think about where I fit in with all of this. Let me pose a few questions.
1. How are willing are you to talk about compromises with the state as it is?
My answer is, “very willing.” For example, when I talk about raising the retirement age for Social Security, that is a compromise relative to “abolish Social Security.”
I justify this not on the basis of political pragmatism but on the basis of self-doubt. I believe that the state could reduce or phase out Social Security without harmful consequences, but I am not certain of this. One can imagine potentially harmful consequences, including repercussions that ultimately harm the cause of liberty. In general, I think in terms of incremental steps and experiments rather than in terms of the ultimate libertarian ideal. The much-ignored Unchecked and Unbalanced champions those sorts of ideas, even as it aims for an ideal that is very different from our current form of government.
2. What is your attitude toward Progressives?
Here, I seem to be more with Rothbard than with Wilkinson. Doherty cites this essay as an example of Rothbard’s thinking.
The enormous growth of intellectuals, academics, social scientists, technocrats, engineers, social workers, physicians, and occupational “guilds” of all types in the late 19th century led most of these groups to organize for a far greater share of the pie than they could possibly achieve on the free market. These intellectuals needed the State to license, restrict, and cartelize their occupations, so as to raise the incomes for the fortunate people already in these fields.
I differ with Rothbard in that I see the advance of the Progressive ideology less as a result of conscious conspiracy and more as an emergent phenomenon based on man’s status-seeking nature. The academy is a fractal set of ranking systems, almost as if it were designed to appeal to people looking for status measures. Moreover, to a great extent, your status depends on your profession of faith, in things like global warming. The system is recursive, in that above all, you must profess faith in the process by which intellectuals gain power, both within the academy and in the apparatus of the state.
(Given that the Obama Administration consists of the exact sorts of technocrats that the Progressive movement exalts–not a single businessman among the key players–I predict that the Progressive narrative will never concede that this Administration failed. Instead, the narrative will necessarily be that its problems were inherited and that the country became ungovernable. Robert Wright is the latest contributor to this narrative. Another narrative variation that you will find is that Obama’s only flaw was his unwillingness to fight harder for Progressive policies.
Again, I do not see a conspiracy to protect Obama. Instead, I see a natural attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance that results from having to reconcile a nearly ideal Progressive scenario–Obama plus 60 Senators plus a House majority–with adverse poll numbers, a failed stimulus program, a health care reform that was hardly worth fighting for, and in general not much to show for all the technocratic brilliance.)
3. Does the state have necessary functions?
I believe that it does, but I am not sure. I am strongly inclined to believe that unless we agree to have an ultimate arbiter of disputes, the equilibrium is what North, Weingast, and Wallis call “the natural state,” in which a coalition of violent gangs extorts from the general public and shares the loot. Our imperfect democracy, or “open-access order” in NWW’s terminology, is far from perfect, but it allows more people to have more opportunity to hold onto more of the wealth that they create.
However, my guess is that what we think of as typical government functions–education, income security, police and fire protection, etc.–could be supplied competitively by profit-seeking firms, charities, or mutual aid societies. There are various issues with this approach–again, see my much-ignored book if you want more discussion.
Overall, I think my views may not be far from Rothbard’s, but I am far more intellectually cautious. I am aware that I have changed my mind over the years, which suggests that I could be persuaded to do so again.