By Bryan Caplan
Critics often view liberals as deeply authoritarian. Most liberals naturally object to this unflattering claim. Critics notwithstanding, liberals don’t relish using the power of government. They don’t have a raw preference for forcing everyone live their way. Instead, liberals maintain, they favor using the power of government to advance liberal aims because such policies have good overall consequences.
Are liberals seeing their collective motivations clearly? Not really. For starters, most liberals – like most human beings – don’t know enough social science to begin to weigh policies’ overall consequences. The best they can do, as Kahneman explains, is covertly change the subject, then answer easier questions. To evaluate the overall consequences of raising the minimum wage, for example, you need to know the elasticity of labor demand. Few laymen even understand the concept of elasticity, so they mentally substitute easier questions like, “Would I be happy if employers gave
low-skilled workers a raise?”
How does this show that most liberals aren’t consequentialists? Well, if most liberals don’t know enough social science to weigh policies overall consequences, most can’t honestly say, “I’m a liberal because using the power of government to advance liberal aims has overall good consequences.” If a liberal spends near-zero mental effort studying policies’ consequences, something other than his beliefs about policies’ consequences must be driving his liberalism.
Such as? Sheer love of government isn’t the only possibility, but it’s a good guess. Consider: If you want lots of X, but are too ignorant to evaluate X’s indirect effects, you probably just really love X. If you want lots of ice cream, but are too ignorant to evaluate ice cream’s effect on your health, you probably just really love ice cream. If you want lots of government, but are too ignorant to evaluate government’s overall consequences, you probably just really love government.
At this point, the thoughtful liberal may clarify his position: “When I claimed that liberals were consequentialists rather than authoritarians, I was only talking about liberal policy wonks like me who do know a lot of social science.” When a liberal grasps the connection between the minimum wage and labor demand elasticity – and hundreds of other esoteric policy points – his consequentialist self-portrait becomes fairly credible.
Does this really refute critics’ charge that liberals are authoritarian? It depends. You could define an authoritarian as “someone who relishes the use of government power.” On this definition, liberal wonks plausibly escape the authoritarian charge.
But that’s an awfully strong definition. I’d suggest a more reasonable definition: an authoritarian is “someone who doesn’t mind the use of government power.” This doesn’t mean that you’re an “authoritarian” if you favor using government power under any circumstances. What it means, rather, is that you’re an authoritarian unless you have at least a modest presumption against using government power.
On the latter definition, “I’m a consequentialist” doesn’t rebut the authoritarian accusation. It confirms it. Why? Because consequentialism is inherently authoritarian!
Suppose government forcing everyone to do A has slightly better consequences than the next-best alternative of leaving people alone. True to his name, the consequentialist announces, “We should force everyone to do A.” A nay-sayer raises his hand and says, “What’s the big deal? I don’t want to do A. Leave me alone.” The clever consequentialist responds, “My calculations of the overall consequences take your reluctance into account. So we should still force you to do A.” The nay-sayer nays, “The overall consequences are only slightly better. Just leave me alone.”
In the end, the consequentialist has to either abandon consequentialism or say, “I refuse to leave you alone. Although the difference between the best and second-best is small, you have to do A whether you like it or not.” And isn’t that an awfully authoritarian attitude?
P.S. I leave the writing of the companion post on “Conservative Authoritarianism” as an exercise for the reader.