The Undermotivated Apostate: Two Post-Libertarian Case Studies
By Bryan Caplan
Political irrationality is ubiquitous. Most people irrationally cling to their political views; most of the rest irrationally revise their political views. This includes, of course, my fellow libertarians. I know plenty of unreasonable libertarians, but I also know plenty of “post-libertarians” who changed their minds for reasons no reasonable libertarian would accept.
Let’s consider two case studies of libertarian apostasy I’ve seen first-hand.
While there are plenty of thoughtful criticisms of fully open borders, libertarian apostates usually just latch onto a mainstream complaint: It’s bad for low-skilled Americans, or “You can’t have open borders and a welfare state,” or “Immigrants will vote to turn the U.S. into a banana republic.” You’d expect them to go through several layers of argument: “I know the standard libertarian reply, but that’s incorrect because…” And you’d expect them to endorse the mildest restrictions required to address their concerns. But they almost never do. When libertarians turn against immigration, most become anti-immigration by normal standards, which is very anti-immigration indeed.
Some libertarians have even left me speechless with, “I believed in open borders until I realized that culture matters.” I could say, “So until recently, you believed that culture didn’t matter?” But what’s the point? Culture obviously matters. Every libertarian I’ve met admits it. In fact, libertarians routinely discuss the need to change our culture in a libertarian direction. So how could the banal “insight” that “Culture matters” possibly lead a reasonable libertarian to rethink anything?
Libertarians have a standard list of objections to the welfare state. Some – like opposition to universal programs and concern about disincentives – are very strong. But the radical objections are much more debatable. I can easily see someone with libertarian sympathies reluctantly and cautiously advocating a small welfare state.
But when libertarians change their minds, they usually go much further. Indeed, most apostates seem to love the welfare state. Before long, they’re praising the wonders of Scandinavia, home of massive universal programs – and the massive taxes required to fund such programs. Isn’t it great how Sweden provides a comprehensive safety net, so everyone feels secure? It’s almost like the apostates have forgotten – or never knew – the standard libertarian arguments about the disincentives of the welfare state and the wastefulness of universal redistribution.
Of course, these generalizations don’t apply to all post-libertarians; I disagree with Will Wilkinson’s defense of the welfare state, but at least he’s trying to meet his burden of proof. But the typical libertarian apostate is as intellectually disappointing as a former socialist who self-congratulates, “But then I learned that incentives matter.” In both cases, I have to say: Your “realization” is well-known to every reasonable proponent of the view you’ve abandoned. Though I’ve often criticized people for their inability to fairly explain their opponents’ views, it’s far worse if you can’t fairly explain views that were once your own.