Krugman's Insightful Analysis of Libertarians
By David Henderson
I was too busy on April 1 to post an April Fool’s Day entry. This isn’t one. But my use of the word “insightful” in the title is meant to be ironic.
A few days ago, Paul Krugman posted that “there basically aren’t any libertarians.” How did he reach that conclusion? The way he often does when he does a hatchet job: by coming up with a distorted criterion.
Actually Krugman quotes Nate Cohn saying that there basically aren’t any libertarians. He then adds:
And that’s true. I wish I could say that Rand Paul can’t win because he believes in crank monetary economics, etc. But the truth is that these things matter much less than the fact that not many Americans consider themselves libertarian, and even those who do are deluding themselves.
So, in Krugman’s view, we have only non-libertarians and putative libertarians who delude themselves.
A few lines later, though, Krugman concedes that there are “very few” libertarians.
At the end of his piece, Krugman comes very close to the more extreme version, writing:
There are almost no genuine libertarians in America — and the people who like to use that name for themselves do not, in reality, love liberty.
Get it? There are “almost no” genuine libertarians in America. And “the people,” not “some people,” who “like to use that name for themselves” don’t actually love liberty. And he knows this because he reads us so often and so carefully.
The best answer I’ve seen to Krugman is by David Boaz, who actually is a libertarian, thus instantly refuting the initial extreme version of Krugman’s claim. Boaz’s piece is titled “Paul Krugman Can’t Find Any Libertarians.”
Boaz puts his finger on the problem with Krugman’s analysis:
Part of the trick here is that Krugman has used a vague term, “socially liberal,” for one of the dimensions of the matrix, and a radical policy position, “no social insurance,” for the other dimension. The logical way would be to use either common vague terms for both dimensions – say “socially liberal/conservative” and “fiscally liberal/conservative” – or specific and similarly radical terms for both dimensions, something like “no social insurance” and “repeal all drug laws.” Wonder how many people would be in the boxes then?
“No social insurance” is a very radical position. Even many libertarians wouldn’t support it. Like Hayek. So to find the divisions in our society, we might choose a specific issue of personal freedom – gay marriage, say – along with an equally controversial economic policy such as school choice or a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.
If you use either set of dimensions, it’s pretty clear that you’re going to get substantial numbers of libertarians (broadly speaking) and also of those incongruous creatures Krugman can only call “hardhats.” Libertarians often call people who support substantial government intervention in both economic and personal issues “statists” or authoritarians. In our studies we call them populists, as does the Gallup Poll.
Boaz has a number of other insights also, and I recommend reading the whole thing, which isn’t long.
I do want to add a criticism of Krugman, though, that I wish David Boaz had made. That is that the two-dimensional chart used to ferret out whether someone is a libertarian or something else should really be three-dimensional. Here’s how I put it in a 2006 speech to a Libertarian Party audience:
I’m sure that many of you are familiar with the libertarian-designed “World’s Smallest Political Quiz.” Let me ask you a question: How many questions does that quiz have on foreign policy? [Someone in the audience answered, correctly, “Zero.”] We libertarians have honed our principles and applied them to literally hundreds of domestic policy issues. We’ve done a great job. The depth of our understanding of how to apply our principles to these issues and of the importance of peace in the domestic realm is truly something for us to be proud of. But we haven’t given nearly the same care to examining foreign policy.
I added [Brian Williams caveat–I think I added]:
You could advocate that the U.S. government drop a nuclear bomb on Canada and you could still be counted as a complete libertarian.