Two Questions for Libertarians
By Arnold Kling
These occurred to me after the Association for Private Enterprise Education conference over the past few days.
1. How should libertarians frame government?
(a) as a criminal enterprise; or
(b) as a service provider that does a bad job, largely because it is a monopoly, with too many restrictions on entry and exit
Patri Friedman and I argued for (b). It sounds more positive and optimistic. One problem with (a) is that if you fear a criminal enterprise, what you tend to want is a stronger criminal enterprise that will give you better treatment.
I think this is a really fundamental issue for libertarians, and I do not have it fully settled in my own mind. On the one hand, I would like the model to be that we as consumers can choose government in a competitive market.
On the other hand, back in the real world, I buy into the analysis of North, Weingast, and Wallis in Violence and Social Orders. That is, the “natural state” consists of limited-access orders, in which violent elites divide up wealth and power. According to NWW, the process of getting from these limited-access order to open-access orders is not easy. Elites first develop formal institutions to solidify their own rights and privileges, and then they gradually extend these institutional protections to larger groups within the population.
Suppose that we start from an open-access order (a modern Western democracy with a mixture of markets and government). If people were to discard their romantic attachment to the state, would that lead to a competitive market in government, or would it lead to a reversion to the natural state?
This is not a new issue. See Hobbes.
2. When it comes to higher education, should libertarians work with or against the system?
The conference tends to draw people who are not from the Beltway libertarian crowd. They would rather argue deep philosophy than current policy. Some attendees might view a more policy-oriented think tank as conferring too much legitimacy on the existing system.
Meanwhile, there is a strong academic flavor to the conference, with an emphasis on pretty standard academic status markers and activities. Young people are encouraged to get advanced degrees, rather than, say, encouraged to start a business. Publication is valued. The academic hierarchy is respected. There is an implicit goal of raising the status of libertarians within the academic community. I find myself wondering whether this confers too much legitimacy on the existing academic system.