Mid-Week Reader: The Justice of US Intervention in Syria

I’d like to announce a new weekly series of posts that I will be making: the Mid-Week Reader. Every Wednesday (hopefully), I will post a series of articles that I find interesting. Unlike most ventures in micro-blogging, though,  I will try to make all the articles focus on a specific topic rather than leave you with a random assortment of good articles (which Branden already does so well most weekends). This week’s topic: with Trump bombing Syria last week despite ostensibly being a dove (hate to say I told you so), I give you a series of articles on the justice, historical background, and press reaction to the bombing.

  • Fernando Terson and Bas van der Vossen, who are co-authoring on the topic of humanitarian intervention, each have interesting pieces at Bleeding Heart Libertarians debating the bombing of Syria from the perspective of Just War Theory. Terson argues that it was just, Vossen disagrees.
  • Over at The American Conservative, John Glasser of the Cato Institute has an article arguing that Trump’s invasion is neither legally authorized nor humanitarian.
  • Any discussion of foreign policy is incomplete without Chris Coyne’s classic paper “The Fatal Conceit of Foreign Intervention,” a political-economic analysis of foreign policy which concludes all sorts of foreign intervention are likely to fail for similar reasons that socialist economic intervention fails.
  • As perhaps a case study of Coyne’s analysis, Kelly Vee of the Center for a Stateless Society has an article summarizing the history of United States’ actions in Syria going back to World War II and how it’s gotten us into the current situation.
  • At Vox, Sean Illing interviews CUNY professor of journalism Eric Alterman on how the press fails to critically assess military intervention.

Immigration, Cultural Change, and Diversity as a Cultural Discovery Process

I have spent a couple of posts addressing various spurious economic and fiscal arguments against looser immigration restrictions. But, as Brandon pointed out recently, these aren’t really the most powerful arguments for immigration restrictions. Most of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric revolves around strictly alleged cultural costs of immigration. I agree that for all the economic rhetoric used in these debates, it is fear of the culturally unfamiliar that is driving the opposition. However, I still think the tools of economics that are used to address whether immigration negatively impacts wages, welfare, and unemployment can be used to address the question of whether immigrants impact our culture negatively.

One of the greatest fears that conservatives tend to have of immigration is the resulting cultural diversity will cause harmful change in society. The argument goes that the immigrant will bring “their” customs from other countries that might do damage to “our” supposedly superior customs and practices, and the result will be a damage to “our” long-held traditions and institutions that make “our” society “great.” These fears include, for example, lower income immigrants causing higher divorce rates spurring disintegration of the family, possible violence coming from cultural differences, or immigrants voting in ways that are not conducive to what conservatives tend to call “the founding principles of the republic.” Thanks to this insight, it is argued, we should restrict immigration or at least force prospective immigrants to hop through bureaucracy so they may have training on “our” republican principles before becoming citizens.

There are a number of ways one may address this argument. First, one could point out that immigrants face robust incentives to assimilate into American culture without needing to be forced to by restrictive immigration policies. One of the main reasons why immigrants come to the United States is for better economic opportunity. However, when immigrants are extremely socially distant from much of the native population, there a tendency for natives to trust them less in market exchange. As a result, it is in the best interest of the immigrant to adopt some of the customs of his/her new home in order to reduce the social distance to maximize the number of trades. (A more detailed version of this type of argument, in application to social and cultural differences in anarchy, can be found in Pete Leeson’s paper Social Distance and Self-Enforcing Exchange).

The main moral of the story is that peaceable assimilation and social cohesion comes about through non-governmental mechanisms far more easily than is commonly assumed. In other words, “our” cultural values are likely not in as much danger as conservatives would have you think.

Another powerful way of addressing this claim is to ask why should we assume that “our” ways of doing things is any better than the immigrant’s home country’s practices? Why is it that we should be so resistant to the possibility that culture might change thanks to immigration and cultural diversity?

It is tempting for conservatives to respond that the immigrant is coming here and leaving his/her home, thus obviously there is something “better” about “our” cultural practices. However, to do so is to somewhat oversimplify why people immigrate. Though it might be true that, on net, they anticipate life in their new home to be better and that might largely be because “our” institutions and cultural practices are on net better, it is a composition fallacy to claim that it follows from this that all our institutions are better. There still might be some cultural practices that immigrants would want to keep thanks to his/her subjective value preferences from his or her country, and those practices very well might be a more beneficial. This is not to say our cultural practices are inherently worse, or that they are in every instance equal, just that we have no way of evaluating the relative value of cultural practices ex ante.

The lesson here is that we should apply FA Hayek’s insights from the knowledge problem to the evolution of cultural practices in much the way conservatives are willing to apply it to immigration. There is no reason to assume that “our” cultural practices are better than foreign ones; they may or may not be, but it is a pretense of knowledge to attempt to use state coercion to centrally plan culture just as it is a pretense of knowledge to attempt to centrally plan economic production.

Instead of viewing immigration as a necessary drain on culture, it may be viewed as a potential means of improving culture through the free exchange of cultural values and practices. In the market, individuals are permitted to experiment with new inventions and methods of production because this innovation and risk can lead to better ways of doing things. Therefore, entrepreneurship is commonly called a “discovery process;” it is how humanity may ‘discover’ newer, more efficient economic production techniques and products.

Why is cosmopolitan diversity not to be thought of as such a discovery process in the realm of culture? Just as competition between firms without barriers to entry brings economic innovation, competition between cultural practices without the barrier to entry of immigration laws may be a means of bettering culture. When thought of in that light, the fact that our cultural traditions may change is not so daunting. Just as there is “creative destruction” of firms in the marketplace, there is creative destruction of cultural practices.

Conservative critics of immigration may object that such cultural diversity may cause society to evolve in negative ways, or else they may object and claim that I am not valuing traditions highly enough. For the first claim, there is an epistemic problem here on how we may know which cultural practices are “better.” We may have our opinions, based on micro-level experience, on which cultural practices are better, and we have every right to promote those in non-governmental ways and continue to practice them in our lives. Tolerance for such diversity is what allows the cultural discovery process to happen in the first place. However, there is no reason to assume that our sentiments towards our tradition constitute objective knowledge of cultural practices on the macro-level; on the contrary, the key insight of Hayek is it is a fatal conceit to assume such knowledge.

As Hayek said in his famous essay Why I’m Not a Conservative:

As has often been acknowledged by conservative writers, one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead. There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about. It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance.

As for the latter objection that I’m not valuing tradition, what is at the core of disagreement is not the value of traditions. Traditions are highly valuable: they are the cultural culmination of all the tacit knowledge of the extended order of society and have withstood the test of time. The disagreement here is what principles we ought to employ when evaluating how a tradition should evolve. The principle I’m expressing is that when a tradition must be forced on society through state coercion and planning, perhaps it is not worth keeping.

Far from destroying culture, the free mobility of individuals through immigration enables spontaneous order to work in ways which improve culture. Immigration, tolerance, and cultural diversity are vital to a free society because it allows the evolution and discovery of better cultural practices. Individual freedom and communal values are not in opposition to each other, instead the only way to improve communal values is through the free mobility of individuals and voluntary exchange.

The Enforcement Costs of Immigration Laws are Greater than Alleged Welfare Costs

As I mentioned in my note yesterday, the common argument that immigration is significantly costly through welfare is mostly empirically falsified. The fact of the matter is immigrants usually aren’t qualified for such programs, illegal immigrants mostly cannot and do not receive them, and immigrants as a whole wind up contributing more to the government’s balance sheet through economic growth and tax receipts than they take through welfare transfer payments.

However, there is one fact I neglected to mention yesterday worthy of its own post: if those opposed to immigration on the grounds of welfare costs were really sincere in that argument, they also need to consider the fiscal costs of enforcing their beloved immigration laws. As the New York Times editorial board pointed out yesterday, these costs are not insignificant:

The Migration Policy Institute reported in 2013 that the federal government spends more each year on immigration enforcement–through Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol–then on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. The total has risen to more than $19 billion a year, and more than $306 billion in all since 1986, measured in 2016 dollars. This exceeds the sum of all spending for the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Secret Service; the Marshals Service; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

These fiscal costs get worse when you consider that Donald Trump wants to expand ICE’s budget even further and, of course, the $8-$12 billion dollar wall.

Further, if you are a civil liberties type concerned with the social and fiscal costs of mass incarceration, immigration enforcement looks even bleaker:

ICE and the Border Patrol already refer more cases for federal prosecution than the entire Justice Department, and the number of people they detain each year (more than 400,000) is greater than the number of inmates being held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for all other federal crimes.

The war on immigrants makes the war on drugs look tame.

Of course, these costs are pretty small when compared to the welfare state, but immigrants are not the ones driving up those welfare costs and they might even reduce it with more tax receipts. The truth is that furthering immigration restrictions and enforcement is truly fiscally irresponsible, not respecting the right to freedom of movement and contract.

Welfare Costs are not a Good Argument Against Immigration

Note: A version of this was initially posted on my old, now defunct blog. However, has become increasingly relevant in the age of Trump, and is worthy of reconsideration now.

It’s one of the most common arguments against looser immigration going back to Milton Friedman to Donald Trump. It is commonly claimed that even though loosening immigration restrictions may be economically beneficial and just, it should be opposed due to the existence of the welfare state. Proponents of this claim argue that immigrants can simply come to this country to obtain welfare benefits, doing no good for the economy and adding to budget deficits.

Though this claim is on its face plausible, welfare is not nearly as much of a compelling reason to oppose immigration as so many argue. It is ultimately an empirical question as to whether or not the fiscal costs of immigration significantly outweigh the fiscal benefits of having more immigrants pay taxes and more tax revenue economic growth caused by immigration.

Before delving into the empirical studies on the matter, there is one very important fact that is too often neglected in these discussions: there are already heavy laws restricting all illegal immigrants and even the vast majority of legal ones from receiving Welfare. As the federal government itself–specifically the HHS–notes:

With some exceptions, “Qualified Aliens” [ie., legal immigrants] entering the country after August 22, 1996, are denied “Federal means-tested public benefits” for their first five years in the U.S. as qualified aliens.

If we were to allow more immigrants, there are legal mechanisms stopping them from getting welfare. There are some exceptions and even unlawful immigrants occasionally slip through the cracks, but this is already a major hole in the case that welfare means we should hold off on immigration reform. The vast majority of immigrants cannot receive welfare until years after they are legalized.

However, for the sake of argument, let us ignore that initial hole in the case against increased immigration. Let’s generously assume the majority of immigrants–legal and illegal–can somehow get their hands on welfare. There is still little reason to expect that additional immigrants would be any more of a fiscal drag on welfare programs for the vast majority of our population simply because they are not the type of people who typically wind up on welfare. Our welfare programs are primarily designed to protect a select few types of people: the sick and elderly (Social Security and Medicare), and women and children (SCHIP, SNAP, TAMPF, etc.) If one looks at the demographics of immigrants coming into the country, however, one finds that they do not fit in the demographics of those who typically qualify for welfare programs. According to the Census Bureau, the vast majority (75.6%) of the total foreign-born population (both legal and illegal immigrants) are of working age (between 25 and 65).  Most immigrants, even if they were legal citizens, would not qualify for most welfare programs to begin with.

On the other hand, poverty rates are higher among immigrants and that means more would qualify for poverty-based programs. However, most immigrants are simply not the type to stay in those programs. Contrary to common belief, immigrants are mostly hard-working innovators rather than loafing welfare queens. According to Pew Research, 91% of all unauthorized immigrants are involved in the US labor force. Legal immigrants also start businesses at a higher rate than natural born citizens and file patents at almost double the rate of natives. As a result, immigrants have fairly high social mobility, especially intergenerationally, and so will not stay poor and on welfare all that long.

Put it together, and you find that immigrants generally use many major welfare programs at a lower rate than natives. Immigrants are 25% less likely to be enrolled in Medicare, for example, than citizens and actually contribute more to Medicare than they receive while citizens make Medicare run at a deficit. From the New York Times:

[A] study, led by researchers at Harvard Medical School, measured immigrants’ contributions to the part of Medicare that pays for hospital care, a trust fund that accounts for nearly half of the federal program’s revenue. It found that immigrants generated surpluses totaling $115 billion from 2002 to 2009. In comparison, the American-born population incurred a deficit of $28 billion over the same period

Of course, nobody would advocate restrictions on how many children are allowed to be born based on fiscal considerations. However, for some reason the concern becomes a big factor for immigration skeptics.

If you are still not convinced, let us go over the empirical literature on how much immigrants cost fiscally. Some fairly partisan studies, such as this one from the Heritage Foundation (written by an analyst who was forced to resign due to fairly racist claims), conclude that fiscal costs are very negative. The problem, however, is that most of these studies fail to take into account the dynamic macroeconomic impact of immigration. Opponents of immigration, especially those at the Heritage Foundation, generally understand the importance of taking dynamic economic impacts of policy changes into account on other issues, e.g. taxation; however, for some (partisan) reason fail to apply that logic to immigration policies. Like taxes, immigration laws change people’s behavior in ways that can increase revenue. First of all, more immigrants entering the economy immediately means more revenue as there are more people to tax. Additionally, economic growth from further division of labor provided by immigration increases tax revenue.  Any study that does not succeed in taking into account revenue gains from immigration is not worth taking seriously.

Among studies that are worth taking seriously, there is general consensus that immigrants are either a slight net gain fiscally speaking, a very slight net loss or have little to no impact. According to a study by the OECD of its 20 member countries, despite the fact that some of its countries have massive levels of immigration, the fiscal impact of immigration is “generally not exceeding 0.5 percent of G.D.P. in either positive or negative terms.” The study concluded, “The current impact of the cumulative waves of migration that arrived over the past 50 years is just not that large, whether on the positive or negative side.”

Specifically for the United States, another authoritative study in 1997 found the following as summarized by David Griswold of the Cato Institute:

The 1997 National Research Council study determined that the typical immigrant and descendants represent an $80,000 fiscal gain to the government in terms of net present value. But that gain divides into a positive $105,000 fiscal impact for the federal government and a negative $25,000 impact on the state and local level (NRC 1997: 337).

Despite the slight negative impact for states, as Griswold notes, there is no correlation between immigration and more welfare for immigrants:

Undocumented immigrants are even more likely to self-select states with below-average social spending. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the low-spending states grew by a net 855,000, or 35 percent. In the high-spending states, the population grew by 385,000, or 11 percent (U.S. Census 2011; NASBO 2010: 33; Passel and Cohn 2011). One possible reason why unauthorized immigrants are even less drawn to high-welfare-spending states is that, unlike immigrants who have been naturalized, they are not eligible for any of the standard welfare programs.

The potential fiscal impact of immigration from the Welfare state is not a good reason to oppose it at all. There are major legal barriers to immigrants receiving welfare, immigrants are statistically less likely to receive welfare than natives for demographic reasons, and all the authoritative empirical evidence shows that immigrants are on net not a very significant fiscal drag and can, in fact, be a net fiscal gain.

Why did the Pseudo-Libertarians Bring a White Nationalist to ISFLC in the first place?

This weekend I attended the International Students for Liberty Conference in DC, the largest global meeting of libertarian students, professionals, and intellectuals. I was excited to meet a few friends I seldom get to see from across the world, listen to a few exciting talks by some of my favorite intellectual influences, such as Jonathan Haidt, Steve Horwitz, Edward Stringham, Sheldon Richman and the like. It was my third time attending the conference, and I always enjoy myself there.

However on Saturday afternoon, something that I did not want to see at all had reared its ugly face and even more hideous haircut: alt-right pseudo-intellectual think tank head and noted white nationalist blowhard Richard Spencer decided to come and troll us libertarians. I was just walking through the lobby when I looked over and saw him sitting at the hotel bar surrounded by a gang of ostensible thugs wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.

Now at this point, it is worth noting that Richard Spencer was in no way invited to this event by SFL in any official capacity. It is easy to be misled on this point as Spencer, being a complete fraud, had a sign next to him saying “Richard Spencer at ISFLC” as though he were invited. Immediately after seeing Spencer, I walked over to talk to some SFL staff who said he would not be allowed in the conference and, though he had every right to just hang out in a public space outside of the conference, he was in no way allowed in the conference itself.

Instead, Spencer was invited by a group calling themselves “The Hoppe Caucus,” named after noted bigot Hans-Hermann Hoppe. It is perhaps revealing that a bunch of students who want to invite a self-proclaimed white nationalist who does the Nazi salute to Trump and calls for “ethnic cleansing” of non-whites to a libertarian conference give themselves this name. The organizers were originally planning to invite Augustus Sol Invictus (the linked post was deleted) to do a similar event hijacking the conference, but were unable to pay for his travel. (The same Augustus Sol Invictus who was kicked out of a Libertarian Party Senate race for being a “neo-Nazi” who supports eugenics and participating in Satanic goat-sacrificing rituals.)

The “Hoppe Caucus” is nothing more than a Facebook page started by a couple of alt-right crypto-fascists masquerading as libertarians surrounding websites like the oxymoronically named The Liberty Conservative and the grossly misnamed trashy click-bait site  Liberty Hangout. I do have the misfortune of knowing a couple of the people who were involved in organizing Spencer. Only one of whom at any point in any official capacity associated with SFL as a low-level campus coordinator, and is mostly associated with YAL as a state chair and various other alt-right blogs. He shall remain unnamed as, from what I’ve seen, he’s been too cowardly to explicitly associate himself with the group publicly. Notably, he also recently left SFL’s CC program after some SFL staffers were blocking him from bringing Augustus. Another is a former YAL chapter leader who is now doing work with a number of right-wing think tanks in the midwest and writes for the Liberty Conservative, whose name is Mitchell Steffen.

I stood around at a distance observing Richard Spencer and the growing crowd around him, it appeared to me to be fairly standard relatively boring tone of conversations that happen at the conference, just with the notable difference of a fair amount of complete bigotry and Nazism. I went downstairs and decided not to feed the trolls. But about a half an hour to forty minutes later, I heard that Jeffery Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education, a conference speaker who was actually invited there, went upstairs to confront Richard Spencer. You can watch a recording of the exchange here. After the conversation got heated, hotel security intervened and kicked Spencer out of the venue. As Robby Soave notes in Reasonsome have reported that Spencer requested for security to escort him out, though it is unclear if that is the case (there is at least one video, see around 40:33 which seems to suggest Spencer asked for security, though was being kicked out).

Now, to combat further misinformation put out by the same group of complete liars who brought Spencer at the Liberty Conservativeno, Richard Spencer did not “nearly start a riot.” Meanwhile in reality, while Tucker was visibly upset, he did not threaten nor engage in violence at all, nor did any other attendee at the conference. First, Spencer and Tucker talked for nearly twenty minutes without any physical altercation, and Tucker arrived after nearly an hour of peaceful discussion between Spencer and some students. You can watch the videos linked above for proof. If merely getting impassioned in a debate is “nearly a riot,” these Hoppe occultists are the true snowflakes who need a safe space.

Further, Tucker and the other attendees were not upset because Spencer “merely show[ed] up in the Hotel Bar.” We were upset because these frauds dishonestly put up a sign implying that Spencer was invited and was there in an official capacity. In order to attend, one needed to pay a registration fee for the conference, which Spencer didn’t, and needed to be invited to be a speaker, which he wasn’t. He was committing fraud and attempting to disrupt a peaceful private event, if he went unchallenged the press (like Liberty Conservative’s fact-free report implies) would assume he was invited there officially. Additionally, it is a complete lie to say that around fifty attendees was “one of the best attended breakouts” at the conference, of all the breakouts I attended the smallest was around 45 (Stringham’s lecture) and most were well above 150 (eg., Haidt’s lecture and Caplan and Wilkinson’s Basic Income debate). I know you alt-righters love your alternative facts, but just because you can put them on your dumpy little click-bait site doesn’t make them true.

Regardless of the reality of the situation, some pseudo-libertarians have rushed to Spencer’s defense saying Tucker reacted in a hyperbolic fashion and didn’t take Spencer’s right to free speech seriously. Some have even idiotically claimed that the “left libertarians” at SFL (I am one of the few, the majority of the conference attendees are not, by the way) used force to oust Richard Spencer. Somehow, when Tucker asserts the liberty and dignity of all human beings it’s some act of aggression because the fascist snowflakes didn’t like his tone, but if Hoppe fanboys demand that communists get thrown out helicopters and their homeboy Spencer demands the state ethnically cleanse black people, that’s hunky dory.

First, nobody from SFL ousted Spencer, he either left of his own accord because he couldn’t handle Tucker’s debate or the hotel kicked him out, which the hotel is well within its rights to do because of this thing these pseudo-libertarians have apparently forgotten called private property. Spencer intruded on a private event with the intention of misleading everyone about his involvement in it, Tucker cleared up Spencer’s and the Hoppe Caucus’ fraud, and the hotel kicked him off of their private property for trespassing. It’s amazing how these crypto-fascists think “free association” is primary if you’re a bigot who doesn’t want to serve a gay person a wedding cake, wants to “physically remove, so to speak” people they disagree with from society or is a racist who discriminates against black people. But when it comes to an actual libertarian not wanting a Nazi at their private event all of a sudden “free association” doesn’t matter because they can lazily caterwaul “free speech.” It’s almost like they don’t actually believe in free association unless you’re a white, straight Christian fascist like them.

Further, the idea that all ideas always get the same hearing is a gross misunderstanding of the point of free speech and the usefulness of public discourse in a liberal political order. The fact is, there is always an opportunity cost to inquiry. Racism, Nazism, white nationalism and the like were long ago proven to be continuously false and extremely dangerous, and it would be a misuse of intellectual resources to continually need to “engage with them.” This is for the same reason astronomers do not need to continually write academic papers disproving flat-earth conspiracy nutters, medical biologists do not need to continually refute anti-vaxxer cranks, and economists do not need to continually engage with erroneous labor theories of value in their original academic work. The intellectual resources of the community of inquiry can be better used by addressing new ideas that are actually relevant to our current situation, not by continually discussing with dogmatic cranks who spew pseudo-scientific lies about race.

Of course, it is arguable that this principle is not applicable in the current situation because ideas like Spencer’s have gained popularity, possibly in part because of a breakdown in discourse in the United States caused by some on the left refusing to engage in any serious discourse with anything they don’t agree with. This means one ought to write refutations of the odious seeds of the alt-right, like Tucker himself has done. But free speech, and even the necessity of engaging with an intellectual (or in this case, pseudo-intellectual) opponent does not mean you hand him the loudspeaker by inviting him to your conference, and it does not mean you let him defraud and defame you by pretending to be a part of a private event to which he was not invited. Just because a Nazi has the liberty right to free speech does not mean they have the claim right to oblige you to give them a platform for said speech. (The difference between claim-rights and liberty-rights is lost on both Hoppe fans and Hoppe himself.)

Even though I am happy that my libertarian peers stood up to Spencer at the conference, I think this is time for libertarians to engage in serious reflection. These weren’t just a group of odious, intellectually immature, adolescent edge-lords crashing an event. Though they were also that, this was a group of pugnacious kids who were to some extent legitimized by prominent student groups. One made it past the screening into SFL’s CC program, and while it is worth noting he’s one of a very few bad CC’s out of over a hundred across the country and is no longer a CC because SFL was stopping his excesses, the fact that he thought SFL would be a good platform for his nonsense and that he was a CC for this long (about six months) in the first place should cause some concern. Further, he and others involved are prominent in YAL, not only chapter presidents but even state chairs.

Why would a group of pretty overt fascists feel comfortable masquerading as libertarians and naming their fake news sites after the ideas of liberty? Why would they feel and think inviting a prominent neo-Nazi to a large libertarian event was a good idea in the first place? Why are pseudo-intellectual occultist hacks, snake-oil salesmen, bigots and conspiracy theorists like Milo, Molyneux, Cantwell, Hoppe, Alex Jones, and the like so revered by self-proclaimed “libertarians” in such large circles? Why, when I mention I’m a libertarian, do I feel the need to disassociate myself with so many other libertarian students who are newer to the movement? I think this points to a series of deep problems with the infrastructure of the “libertarian movement” as it exists, and I will chronicle them one by one: an overly intensive focus on activism, populism, a history of right-wing fusionism of various sorts, and immature contrarianism.

Activism is clearly something any political movement of any form is going to have to engage on at some level. By activism, here, I mean recruiting new people to your movement, spreading your ideas through popular culture, engaging a little in the political process and engaging in grass-roots movement building with activities like tabling, advertising for and organizing events, and the like. It’s something I’m admittedly not particularly good at nor do I enjoy doing it, so I do have reason to downgrade its importance on some personal level admittedly. However, I still believe that a number of student groups in the liberty movement–particularly YAL and to a lesser extent SFL–have put far more emphasis on it than is warranted, and I think it is doing legitimate damage to their cause.

Activism is all about the numbers–how many chapters did you start? how many emails did you get on your list from tabling? how many attendees do you have at your event? how many votes did your candidate get?–and not about the quality of participation or ideas–do your chapters actually do good work, if any at all? will the people you got on your email list ever actually engage with you? did your attendees at the event get anything meaningful or useful out of your event? did the voters actually vote for your candidate because he was good? Undoubtedly, the numbers are important–part of the reason why libertarianism was stifled for so long was high-quality white papers were just being written by think tanks and nobody would read them. However, lately numbers seem to be all that too many people in the development departments of political activist non-profits and think tanks and too many activists think about it alone. It’s all about quantity, not about quality.

YAL has next to no screening–at least that I’m aware of–for who can start a YAL chapter and who makes it up in their ranks. SFL, meanwhile, does have some screening and an application process for becoming a CC, but it’s still obviously pretty easy for alt-right entryists to make it pass that process. Because what seems to matter most to them–and all that seems to matter for YAL–is that they can brag that they have a hundred CCs and hundreds of YAL chapters. The result: you have a recently-resigned SFL campus coordinator and current YAL State Chair bringing a neo-Nazi to a prominent SFL event. Further, they train their activists to focus on these metrics and not metrics of quality (which they don’t even really provide often) for measuring their goals and success of their activism. The result: YAL presidents are trained not to worry that when they invited Milo to “#trigger” leftists that Milo said nothing even remotely related to libertarianism, or that the attendees of his event got nothing substantive out of it; all that mattered was that YAL scored a media-hit because their rabble were roused and their leftist ideological opponents were upset, and that they got a lot of attendees.

Now the reason for the focus on activism is understandable: it’s the easiest way to prove to your donors as an organization that their money is doable, and it is absolutely true that if you don’t have a readily available way to measure the success of your well-state goals means there’s no way to improve. Things like attendance numbers, number of email registrations, and number of chapters and media hits, are an easy way to do this. But when your activism has deteriorated in quality to the point that you have a bunch of entryist activists who are promoting ideas that are literally antithetical to your cause, when they–while representing your organization–are bringing Nazis to a libertarian event, maybe it’s time to reconsider the usefulness of your metrics. They are such a poor measure of quality and can easily be substituted for things like surveys of the attendees of the event for their perception on the event’s quality (IHS does this a lot, and I see SFL doing it more and more often). Further, why not train your activists not only to be activists but to be legitimately good ambassadors for your ideas, or even to be remotely familiar with the ideas they’re supposed to be promoting in the first place (which far too many activists are not beyond a very superficial level)?

Further, this activist mindset creates an in-your-face attitude almost akin to religious proselytizing. The activist thinks “I have the truth already and am now just looking to spread it” and uses in-your-face style evangelism to do so. That mindset is not likely to produce quality ideological ambassadors, but rather pugnacious little dogmatists. As my fellow Notewriter Brandon Christensen once noted in a Reason Papers article, it is at odds with the humility inherent in the libertarian ethos, but very much at home in morally chauvinist ideologies like fascism which Richard Spencer loves. It’s not surprising that YAL-style in-your-face activism is attracting the undesirables just because the type of social interaction it requires is not at home with the psychological mental state libertarianism requires, but is very at home with crypto-fascists like Hoppe.

I won’t spend a lot of time on this one since I spent ample time in an article on the dangers of populism to liberty last month. Suffice it to say, the events of this weekend reaffirms what I had to say in that article about how populism inherently will lack principles and turn into something nasty:

Because the main thing driving populist movements are “the people vs. the elites” rather than the core principles the movement tries to espouse, there’s good reason to think the base of that movement will abandon many of those principles as it grows simply on the basis that they have something similar to what “the elites” believe. It’s not surprising that many of the younger pseudo-libertarians who supported Ron Paul have since jumped on either the Trump or Sanders bandwagon, or, even worse, have defected into the crypto-fascist, dark corners of the alt-right (Stefan Molyneux and Chris Cantwell’s occultists are examples of this). Even left-wing populist movements often have abandoned leftist principles throughout history (the Jacobins in the French Revolution, for example).

Now add the pseudo-libertarians who have jumped on the Richard Spencer and Hans-Herman Hoppe bandwagon to the list of evidence for why populism is so toxic.

Right-Wing Fusionism
When libertarianism in its present form was first fomenting in the seventies, the biggest global conflict was between the communist Soviet Union and the United States. Further, at the time the biggest issues in domestic policy were about creeping state economic regulatory policy left over from the progressive era and social welfare programs with Johnson’s Great Society. All these were big issues for libertarian ideology so they formed a coalition with what was currently the biggest political opposition to those: the emerging post-war conservative movement. It was always an awkward marriage, with intellectuals lashing out against each other from both sides, and honestly both making good points about how libertarianism and conservatism were wholly incompatible. But the awkward coalition, it was argued, was necessary to resist the growing state at home and the specter of communism abroad (even though libertarians and conservatives at the time, obviously, deeply disagreed and fought about the Vietnam war and America’s militaristic impulse to resist the Soviets with foreign intervention).

Today, though, it is clear that this alliance is no longer working. The right in the United States, for one, has morphed into something even more incompatible than the old Buckley-Kirkian conservatism with which it was once awkward bedfellows with into an ultra-nationalistic program of protectionist economic planning, opposition to cultural pluralism, and hostility to religious liberty (for non-Christians).

If one knows the history of right-wing libertarian fusionism should surprise no one that modern ideological delinquent libertarians are are inviting a white nationalist to speak at your conference. There was, of course, the odious phase of “paleo-libertarianism” Rothbard and his cult tried to launch in the early nineties embracing Pat Buchanan like the Hoppe Caucus embraces Trump, the toxic fruit of which includes the infamous outright racist Ron Paul letters which read like some of Richard Spencer’s delusions. In fact, there is a direct line from this “paleo” poison and Hoppe himself to Richard Spencer, Spencer and another white nationalist Jared Taylor were invited to speak at Hoppe’s Property and Freedom Society Conference in 2010 and 2013 respectively on the alt-right and race relations. Hoppe started the Property and Freedom Society in 2006 after feeling that the old Mont Pelerin Society, started by Hayek and Friedman in the forties, wasn’t sufficiently racist-friendly for him.

Even one of my personal favorite libertarian thinkers, FA Hayek, fell for the fusionist vial of toxin in his uncomfortably close relationship with a certain Chilean fascist dictator (obviously not that this discredits his stellar academic work). The point is that even our best intellectuals, and obviously sophomoric college kids, wind up being more defined by what they oppose that they are willing to ally with anyone who’s an enemy of their enemy–including those mot opposed to their ideas–at the expense of actually improving anyone’s lives when political alliance is valued over principle.

This does not mean we substitute right-wing fusionism with some left-wing fusionism where we let the likes of Elizabeth Warren get away with saying “The heart of progressivism is libertarianism” like Reagan did. This doesn’t mean we form an alliance with the left and pretend to be ideologically in the same place as politicians from major leftist political parties who poison our ideas by doing things that have nothing to do with our ideology. It would be a fool’s errand to institutionally ally ourselves on as many issues as we can with existing leftist institutions, like libertarians did with right-wing ones in the past. I much prefer the infuriatingly slow, though necessary, process of social and intellectual change through discourse, cultural engagement, entrepreneurship, and resisting state tyranny where we can. If need be, maybe ally with groups like the ACLU or Heritage on a single issue where we may agree with them. But don’t sit there and pretend that the alliance is anything more than a temporary, single-issue co-authorship for expedience. These little alliances should not make you delude yourself into thinking something like “liberaltarian” (in the American progressive sense of liberal) is anymore meaningful than the oxymoronic “conservatarian” and start bringing Stalinists to your conferences.

My point is that, obviously, fusionism has had a corrosive effect on libertarians to the point that it’s not even clear what self-identified libertarians believe at this point, if it claims to support liberty while its members feel comfortable giving a platform to white nationalist neo-Nazis. I understand the need for a movement to be big-tent and not fraction off with infighting, but when your movement includes people who work for self-identified white nationalists while everyone else is trying to claim something from the classical liberal tradition your big-tent is turning into a circus dominated by demented clowns.

This last point is something pointed out well by Kevin Vallier a few years ago in reaction to one of Hoppe’s more vitriolic racist screeds:

Libertarianism is an unpopular view. And it takes particular personality types to be open to taking unpopular views. Some of these personality types are people who are open to new experience, love the world of ideas and have a disposition for independent thought. However, some of these personality types simply enjoy holding outrageous and provocative views, who like to argue and fight with others, who like insult and and shock. The contrarian is someone of the latter type.

…The worst flaw in the contrarian trap is that it makes libertarians open to views that deserve to be unpopular and despised, including the thinly-veiled racism of the sort the Hans Hermann Hoppe trades in from time to time. The social democratic left can’t just be wrong about the state, they have to be wrong about everything, and obviously wrong at that.

And this applies not just to libertarians, but also to the edge-lord alt-righters who have now successfully co-opted a number of American conservative institutions. In reality, these are just people with the psychological composition and intellectual (im)maturity of a 14-year-old troll in his mommy’s basement posting nonsense on 4Chan who use cartoon frogs to try to thinly veil their odious ideology. They are just contrarians who never grew out of going “No” when their teacher told them to do something in high school, but instead of the teacher telling Pink to “eat your meat” it’s Jeffery Tucker saying “respect the basic liberties of other human beings.” The problem is because libertarianism is still somewhat on the fringe, but just mainstream enough for it to be popular among contrarians, it is attractive to people with that level of immaturity. This is exacerbated by the fact that, for the reasons listed above, the libertarian movement are giving these immature edge-lords a platform.

My main reason for making these points is that while SFL is completely justified in pointing out about how they had nothing to do with Spencer’s presence and opposed it, and libertarians should be happy that we stood up to a Nazi in our midst, we need to remember: not playing footsies with Nazis is the bare minimum for being ideologically tolerable, and not something to be celebrated. We need to recognize that the reason Spencer even felt comfortable showing up and the reason minor leaders in libertarian student organizations felt comfortable inviting him his a symptom of a deeper disease that’s been in the making for quite some time. I do not know exactly how to address this disease, but the first step to fixing a problem is admitting that we have one.

Against Libertarian Populism

Over at The Liberty Conservative (which is, in my opinion, something of an oxymoronic name), Alex Witoslawski of the Leadership Institute recently wrote an article defending populism as a strategy for libertarian activists to embrace. I am going to disagree with Alex at almost every turn, but it should be known that I am friends with Alex and mean no ill-will towards him. In fact, he privately asked me for my input and asked that I publish my criticisms publicly.

Alex defines populism as “a political strategy that aims to mobilize a largely alienated base of the populace against out-of-control elites.” In order for a movement to be populist, Alex claims it must use four distinguishing factors:

Messaging: the central message obviously has to revolve around the theme of populism – “the people versus the privileged elites”

Strategy: put simply, the central strategy of populism is to bypass the ruling class – academia, mainstream media, and political establishment – in order to get the message out directly to the masses

Tactics: in order to achieve the strategic goal of bypassing the ruling class, populist candidates and organizations must make use of grassroots organizing, events, digital communication (social media and email), and the alt-media to communicate directly with the masses

Issues: the message of “the people vs. the elites” is closely adhered to on every single issue advocated; in addition to this, the policies advocated for must be sufficiently radical to inspire a core base of supporters who will passionately support the populist campaign/organization as donors and activists.

To cite reasons why libertarians should embrace this populist ethos, Alex cites the recent surprising election of Donald Trump and the relatively successful Ron Paul primary campaigns of 2008 and 2012, and gives the example of Lew Rockwell’s and Murray Rothbard’s infamous paleolibertarian phase in the late eighties and early nineties for inspiration. Let me give eight reasons why principled libertarians–and classical liberals–neither can be nor should be populists:

1. Is Populism even Necessary for Electoral Victory?
It’s not even apparent that populism is always and everywhere the best electoral strategy in the first place. The three best turnouts, for example, in LP history for president were the decidedly non-populist Gary Johnson campaigns and the non-populist, left-leaning Ed Clark/David Koch 1980 campaign, ranking much lower with less than half the votes of Clark/Koch was the much more populist Ron Paul 1988 campaign. For further evidence, there were many similarities between populists and progressive parties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, one of the few major differences were the degree of technocracy and even outright elitism that progressives embraced (populists were more Jacksonian, progressives Wilsonian). Which parties and candidates were more popular at polls? Progressives. All this is, of course, anecdotal and casual historical evidence from which no necessary causality can be established, but so are the examples of Trump vs. Cruz and Rand vs. Ron that Alex gives. There’s likely an empirical political science literature on the electoral effectiveness of populist messaging that might shed light on this question, one with which I am admittedly ignorant, but, at any rate, this is an antecedent point to my main argument.

2. The Narrow Focus on Electoral Politics
Even if populism does win elections, it’s not even clear that’s a good goal. As any good anarchist will tell you, electoral victories are not the only, or even a particularly good, measure of a political movement’s accomplishments. Who can cater to a rationally ignorant and irrational voting population has little to do with whether your ideology is actually improving anyone’s lives. In fact, for reasons I’ll get to in a later, if all you’re doing is winning elections, there’s a fair chance you’re making people’s lives worse. The goal should be to minimize the real world importance of elections, to get politics out of people’s lives, not to make electoral politics the end goal. Consistent libertarianism is (or at least should be), in fact, not really a political movement at all; it seeks the abolition of politics to begin with.

3. Populism’s Democratic Ethos Leads to Support for Bad Policies 
Even if you manage to get a majority of voters to vote for ostensibly libertarian politicians, the question of how to implement those principles in real-world policy is much more complex. Populists, because the goal is to “tear down the establishment,” are likely to call for haphazard, potentially dangerous policies which democratize institutions that shouldn’t be controlled by the people (eg., courts, central banks, etc.) and make currently controlled democratic institutions more democratic. It goes without saying that putting coercive institutions in control of rationally ignorant and irrational political actors is pretty rash–be they “elites” like politicians and bankers or “the little guy” like supposedly disenfranchised voters.

Examples of such bad ideas supported by populist libertarians include congressional term limits or auditing the fed. Those policies may have libertarian normative goals, but it requires working technical economics and institutional analysis to know if they’re the best way to work towards those goals. For reasons anyone who knows the first thing about public choice can tell you, the masses will never have such knowledge. In fact, the populist attacks on “the elites” are likely to lead people to detest those who do have such knowledge, exacerbating the Dunning-Kruger effect. (Call me an elitist, but I’d go far as to say that populism of any form is just the political manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

4. Populism will Likely Turn into Something Nasty
Because the main thing driving populist movements are “the people vs. the elites” rather than the core principles the movement tries to espouse, there’s good reason to think the base of that movement will abandon many of those principles as it grows simply on the basis that they have something similar to what “the elites” believe. It’s not surprising that many of the younger psuedo-libertarians who supported Ron Paul have since jumped on either the Trump or Sanders bandwagon, or, even worse, have defected into the crypto-fascist, dark corners of the alt-right (Steffan Molyneux and Chris Cantwell’s occultists are examples of this). Even left-wing populist movements often have abandoned leftist principles throughout history (the Jacobins in the French Revolution, for example).

The irrationality of the masses makes it hard for them to have any principles–libertarian or not–for very long. Indeed, even the examples Alex gives are pretty bad examples of libertarians. Rothbard and Rockwell, of course, embraced outright racist and homophobic nonsense to appeal to their culturally conservative base (sometimes using Ron Paul’s name), which is antithetical to the classically liberal ethos of libertarianism which values reducing all forms of coercion–be it through casual institutional forms of oppression or statist coercion.

5. Populism’s Demand for Immediate Change is Likely to Cause Unforeseen Harm
Unlike other methods Alex mentions, populism is a form of immediatism. It really is just a post-enlightenment, first-world, institutionally democratic form of revolution. It’s no coincidence that most populist movements, from Bernie Sanders to Ron Paul rely on the language of revolution to further their appeal. However, there is good reason to be skeptical of any accelerated method of political change–be it “the masses” taking over and overhauling the errors of “the elites,” or violent revolutions like those in late eighteenth century France or early twentieth century Russia.

Institutions and policies often serve tacit functions in society of which we aren’t even focally aware. We are in a radical position of ignorance about what the effects of sudden change that populism demands, such as swapping out entirely who’s in power and changing all policies to the whims of “the masses,” whether those whims are libertarian principles or not. In sum, ironically given the name of the site Alex writes for, populism can never really even be conservative–not in the bastardized tea party or paleo sense, but in the principled Burkean sense. Even if I agree with the ends any political movement aims for, epistemic humility necessitates far more gradualism than populist rhetorical strategy can possibly accommodate.

6. Populism Leads to a Breakdown in Discourse and Awful Praxis
Whether you’re a conservative, libertarian, or liberal, if you are existing in a democracy the main thing you should strive for is to be understood by others. In fact, the alleged raison être for democracy–though famously fails at in its present institutional form–is aiming at better forms of government through arriving at some sort of consensus through open and honest public discourse. In order to have any sort of functional democracy in this sense–which, again, we are already woefully lacking in existing democracies–fulfill the primary function of speech, which is understanding. In order to do this, a necessary norm for discourse to function is the assumption of the good will of all participants in discourse.

The first assumption of populism, much like most crude forms of Marxism, is a violation of what is necessary for such discourse. It assumes, after all, that “the elites” are just an out-of-touch, greedy, mean group of people that “the masses” must depose and everything they’ve done is wrong and must be replaced with the vox populi. Anyone, then, who disagrees–even those within populist movements–is liable of being charged with being “one of the elites” (not unlike accusations of being “bourgeoisie” and “counter-revolutionary” after Lenin’s Vanguard Party took control), and ignored, leading to a communicative breakdown. Discussion is shut off, possible perspectives and principles that could improve the state of affairs are ignored if they bear any even superficial affinity to “the elites,” and one of the few sets of norms–those of communicative action taken from the lifeworld–that make existing democracy at least quasi-functional is replaced with simple partisan hackery. Try talking to your standard dogmatic Trump, Bernie, or even Ron Paul supporter (or really any overly partisan hack, including dogmatic Clinton supporters), and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

7. Populism is Inherently Illiberal and Opposed to Liberty

Populism tells us the problem is that “the elites are in power” and demands that the elites be deposed and replaced with “the masses.” But libertarians say the problem isn’t the fact that the wrong people are in power, the problem is that anyone is in power in the first place. As a consequence, classical liberals have always with good reason been very skeptical of the wisdom of the masses, and have had an ambivalent relationship towards any form of democracy. The radically Jacksonian democratic demeanor of populism, which asserts the masses are equipped to use coercive political institutions, is fundamentally at odds with classical liberalism’s value placed on individual liberty–which asserts that nobody is equipped to use coercive institutions. That’s a fine distinction populist rhetoric necessarily blurs, and you can’t expect “the masses” to understand.

Even if you say you’re just using populist rhetoric to depose those in power, the populist faction of our movement (once “the elites” are out of power) are going to ask, “What’s next?” and are liable to be upset when you say “nothing.” As Hayek tells us, one of the main reasons people get so heavily involved in the political process is that they want to be in charge, that’s true of “the masses” as it is “the elites.”

8. Populist Alliances Often lead to the Destruction of Libertarian Values
Alex mentions the rise of the religious right and other right-wing populist movements as possible fruitful avenues for libertarians to ally with and pursue. However, I’m of the opinion that any sort of fusionism is probably a really bad idea. Not just because many on the religious right want to be unfathomably cruel to me because I’m gay, but because libertarians have philosophical, fundamental disagreements with the people in those movements that cannot be bridged. It is simply not true that the religious right and nationalists are “anti-statist in their nature,” the fact that he cites “forced integration” from immigration supported by nationalists (derived from an infamously bad argument by Hoppe) as common ground is telling. Indeed, if you press most “fusionist” “conservatarians” (including paleos) or “liberaltarians” very far, you’ll find that outside of a few superficial single issues on which they agree with some libertarians, they do not even remotely understand or apply the principles very widely at all. If your movement is composed of walking Dunning-Krugers who do not really understand the extent to which coercive is possible and are not able to engage in constructive dialogue and you’re relying on rhetoric of “take power from the elites” to motivate them, you’re probably not going to have a very libertarian movement.

To illustrate, there’s no reason why “populism” needs to take on a right-wing flair for libertarians at all. In Rothbard’s young years, for example, he attempted to ally with left-wing populist progressives from the anti-war movement. Today, I could say, libertarians should ally with left-wing Sanders supporters. They, after all, share a skepticism towards foreign policy intervention, attacks on social freedom for religious freedom, and corporatist crony capitalism. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Sanders’ supporters are more libertarian than Trump’s, though I don’t necessarily agree with it. Regardless, it is worth noting libertarians have philosophically more in common with those on ‘the left’ in general, but that’s, again, an antecedent point.

Alex would probably reply “But Sanders supporters are socialists, and are fundamentally opposed to libertarians.”  Ignoring the fact that neither Sanders nor most of his supporters are really socialists, he’d mostly be right that they are fundamentally opposed libertarianism. Regardless, Trump supporters are nationalist–which Hayek famously called “the twin brother of socialism”–and are fundamentally opposed to libertarians. Alex might reply, correctly, that some right-wingers can become libertarians by engaging with the populist movement, but so can Sanders supporters. All that point establishes is libertarians should communicate with non-libertarians, and work with non-libertarians on single-issues with which we agree, that need not take on a populist flavor.

The Alternative
If we’re going to forego a focus on electoral politics, and not to populism, what should we replace it with? Alex mentions two possible alternatives:

Hayekian educationism, named after Friedrich Hayek’s theory of social change expounded in his essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” relies first on persuading a core group of intellectuals to adopt libertarian ideas. Then, according to Hayek’s model, those intellectuals persuade a growing number of what Hayek calls “second-hand dealers in ideas” like journalists, teachers, and politicians to propagate their ideas among the general populace.

Fabian incrementalism, named after the Fabian socialists of late 19th century Britain, relies on a similar group of individuals – intellectuals, journalists, and policy wonks – to persuade government bureaucrats and politicians to adopt gradual changes in policy. This, performed consistently over a long period of time will, theoretically, lead to the adoption of long-term social changes that the reformers set out to achieve.

First of all, Alex misunderstands Hayek’s theory of social change. The claim is n’t that you “persuade a core group of intellectuals to adopt libertarian ideas,” and completely ignore political actors and everyday people, the idea is that ideas coming from intellectuals filter down into the extended order of society and eventually become actualized. It’s not as if you just convince a bunch of professors and philosopher kings that you’re right and they’ll create a libertarian utopia, it’s that you put the ideas out there and they eventually filter down, a messy process which takes an extremely long time (possibly centuries), and one which libertarians have really only barely started.

A necessary thing that must occur before they actually become actualized is that the general population is at least subsidiarily aware of the ideas, which requires communicating with the general population in some form (which can and should include what Alex calls “grassroots organizing,” like engaging with them through the electronic forms and the alt-media). But that communication cannot take on the populist message for reasons given, it requires education and dialogue, it requires populizers–which can include educators, journalists, communicators, activists, and even to some extent politicians (though they are not acting qua politicians in the ideal typical capacity used in the model when doing this) to communicate with the masses. Contra Rothbard, it’s not about convincing the “ruling class,” it’s about overcoming them.

Regardless, I will agree that the method some beltway libertarians, unfortunately, take from Hayek’s theory of just writing academic journals and white papers is incomplete. You do need to communicate with the masses, but  I am heavily skeptical that this communication needs to be political in nature. Alex’s narrow focus on elections leads him to neglect other, possibly more fruitful, methods of social change. You can engage in direct action, agorism, or entrepreneurial action (eg., what Zak Slayback, et. al. talk about in “Freedom Without Permission“). In these forms, it requires actively defending the masses (in direct action), spreading ideas by improving the lives of real people by providing alternatives (agorism and entrepreneurial action), and making the effects of state intervention felt on people (eg., when entrepreneurial innovations, like Uber and Lyft, are taken away, the hypocrisy of regulation is made clear). They all accomplish the goal of making the ideas known, even if tacitly, among the masses, while adding bonuses of actually doing things that improve their lives without the riskiness inherent in using coercive institutions like elections to do so.

Though those aren’t necessarily at odds with populism (or Hayekian educationalism for that matter; in fact, I think it’s an inherent part of Hayek’s theory of social change), I put far more faith in these than in elections in which irrational, ignorant people only legitimize the state. Socio-political change happens at the micro-level, through everyday social interactions, through lived real-world experiences, through you reading this article, through good discourse and conversation. If you want to change, you need to alter the lifeworld in which individuals live, just focusing on getting “the masses” to turn out the polls is insufficient. Political activism can only get you so far.

What is Wrong with Income Inequality? Five Reasons to be Concerned

I sometimes part ways with many of my libertarian and classical liberal friends in that I do have some amount of tentative concern for income/wealth inequality (for the purposes of this article, the otherwise important economic distinction between the two is not particularly relevant since the two are strongly correlated with each other). Many libertarians argue that inequality ultimately doesn’t matter. There is good reason to think this drawing from the classic arguments of Nozick and Hayek about how free exchange in a market economy can often interrupt preferred distributions.

The argument goes like this: take whatever your preferred distribution of income is, be it purely egalitarian or some sort of Rawlsian distribution such that the distribution benefits only the worst off in society. Assume there is one individual in the economy who has some product or service everyone wants to buy (in Nozick’s example it was Wilt Chamberlain playing basketball), and let everyone pay a relatively small amount of income to that one individual. For example, assume you have a society with 10,000 people all who start off with an equal endowment of $5 and all of them decide to pay Wilt Chamberlain $1 to watch him play basketball. Very few people would object to those individual exchanges, yet at the end Wilt Chamberlain ends up with $10,005 dollars and everyone else has $4, and our preferred distribution of income has been grossly upset even though the individual actions that led to that distribution are not objectionable. In other words, allowing for free exchange precludes trying to construct an optimal result of that free exchange (a basic consequence of recognizing spontaneous order).

Further, these libertarians argue, it is more important to ensure that the poor are better off in absolute terms than to ensure they are better off relative to their wealthier peers. Therefore, if a given policy will increase the wealth of the wealthiest by 10% and the poorest by 5%, there is no reason to oppose this policy on the grounds that it increases inequality because the poor are still made richer. Therefore, it is claimed, we should focus on policies that improve economic growth and the incomes of the poor and be indifferent as to its impact on relative inequality, since those policies are strongly correlated with bettering the economic conditions of the poor. In fact, as Mises Argued in Liberalism and the Classical Tradition, a certain amount of inequality is necessary for markets to function: they create a market for luxury goods that can be experimented and developed into future mass-consumption goods everyone can consume. Not everyone could afford, for an example, an IPod when it first came out, however today MP3 players are cheap and plentiful because the very wealthy were able to demand it when it was very expensive.

I agree with my libertarians in thinking that this argument is largely correct, however I do not think it proves, as Hayek argued, that social justice (understood in this context as distributive justice) is a “mirage” or that we should be altogether unconcerned with wealth or income distributions. All this argument does is mean that there is no overall deontological theory for an ideal income distribution, but there still might be good consequentialist reasons to think that excessively unequal distributions can impact many of the things that classical liberals tell us to worry about, such as the earnings of the poor, more free political economic outcomes, or overall economic growth. Further, even on Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice, we might oppose income inequality if it arises through unjust means. Here are five reasons why libertarians and classical liberals should be concerned about income inequality (note that they are mostly empirical reasons, not claims about the nature of justice):

1) Income Inequality as a Result of Rent Seeking

Certain government policies result in uneven income distribution. For an example, a paper by Patrick MacLaughlin and Lauren Stanley at the Mercatus Center empirically analyze the regressive effects of regulatory policy. Specifically, Stanley and MacLaughlin find that high barriers to entry create barriers to entry which worsens income mobility. Poorer would-be entrepreneurs cannot enter the market if they must, for an example, pay thousands of dollars for a license, or spend a large amount of time getting costly education and certifications to please some regulatory bureaucracy. This was admitted even by the Obama Administration in a recent report advising reform of occupational licensing laws. As basic public choice theory teaches, regulators are subject to regulatory capture, in which established business interests lobby regulators to erect barriers to entry to harm would-be competitors. Insofar as inequality is a result of such rent-seeking, libertarians have an obvious reason to oppose it.

Many other policies can worsen inequality. When wealthy corporations receive artificial monopolies from policies such as excessive intellectual property laws, insulating them from competition or when they gain wealth at the expense of poorer taxpayers through improper subsidies. When the government uses violent policing tactics to unequally enforce drug laws against poorer communities, or when it uses civil asset forfeiture to take the property of the worst off. When the government uses eminent domain to take the property of disadvantaged individuals and communities in the name of public works projects, or when they implement minimum wage laws that displace low-skilled workers. Or, if the structure of welfare benefits discourages income mobility, which also worsens inequality. There are a myriad of bad government policies which benefit the rich and exploit the poor, some of which are a direct result of rent-seeking on behalf of the wealthy.

If the rich are getting richer, or if the poor are stopped from becoming wealthier, as a result of government coercion, even Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice calls for us to be skeptical of the resulting income distribution. As Matt Zwolinski argues, income distributions are not only a result of, pace Nozick, a result of the free exchanges of individuals, but they are also a result of the institutions in which those individuals exchange. Insofar as inequality is a result of unjust institutions, we have good reason to call that inequality unjust.

Of course, that principle is still very hard to empirically apply. It is hard to tell how much of an unequal distribution is a function of bad institutions and how much is a function of free exchange. However, this means we can provide very limited theories of distributive justice not as constructivist attempts to mold market outcomes to our moral desires, but as rough rules of thumb. If it is true that unequal distributions are a function of bad institutions, then unequal distributions should cause us to re-evaluate those institutions.

2) Income Inequality and Government Exploitation
Of course, many with more Marxist inclinations will argue that any amount of economic inequality will inherently result in class-based exploitation. There are very good, stand-by classical liberal (and neoclassical economic) reasons to reject this as Marxian class analysis as it depends on a highly flawed labor theory of value. However, that does not mean there is not some correlation between some notion of macro-level exploitation of the worst-off and high levels of inequality which libertarians have good reason to be concerned about, for reasons closely related to rent-seeking. Those with a high amount of economic power, particularly in western democracies, are very likely to also have a strong influence over the policies set by the government. There is reason to fear that this will create a class of wealthy people who, through political rent-seeking channels discuss earlier, will control state policies and institutions to protect their interests and wealth at the expense of the worst-off in society. Using state coercion to protect oneself at the expense of others is, under any understanding of the term, coercion. In this way, income inequality can beget rent-seeking and regressive policies which lead to more income inequality which leads to more rent-seeking, leading to a vicious political-economic cycle of exploitation and increasing inequality. In fact, even early radical classical liberal economists applied theories of class analysis to this type of problem.

3) Inequality’s Impacts on Economic Growth

There is a robust amount of empirical literature suggesting that excessive income inequality can harm economic growth. How? The Economist explains:

Inequality could impair growth if those with low incomes suffer poor health and low productivity as a result, or if, as evidence suggests, the poor struggle to finance investments in education. Inequality could also threaten public confidence in growth-boosting policies like free trade, says Dani Rodrik of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Of course, this is of special concern to consequentialist classical liberals who claim we should worry mostly about the betterment of the poor in absolute terms, since economic growth is strongly correlated with bettering living standards. There is even some reason for these classical liberals, given their stated normative reasons, to (at least in the short-term given that we have unjust institutions) support some limited redistributive policies, but only those that are implemented well and don’t worsen inequality or growth (such as a Negative Income Tax), insofar as it boosts growth and helps limited the growth of rent-seeking culture described with reasons one and two.

4) Inequality and Political Stability

There is further some evidence that income inequality increases political instability. If the poor perceive that current distributions are unjust (however wrong they may or may not be), they might have social discontent. In moderate scenarios, (as the Alsenia paper I linked to argue) this can lead to reduced investment, which aggravates third problem discussed earlier. In some scenarios, this can lead to support for populist demagogues (such as Trump or Bernie Sanders) who will implement bad policies that not only might harm the poor but also limit individual liberty in other important ways. In the most extreme scenarios (however unlikely, but still plausible), it can lead to all-out violent revolutions and warfare. At any rate, libertarians and classical liberals concerned with ensuring tranquility and freedom should be concerned if inequality increases.

5) Inequality and Social Mobility

More meritocratic-leaning libertarians might say we should be concerned about equal opportunities rather than equal outcomes. There is some evidence that the two are greatly linked. In particular, the so-called “Great Gatsby Curve,” which shows a negative relationship between economic mobility and income inequality. In other words, unequal outcomes can undermine unequal opportunities. This can be because higher inequality means unequal access to certain services, eg. Education, that can enable social mobility, or that the poorer may have fewer connections to better-paying opportunities because of their socio-economic status. Of course, there is likely some reverse causality here; institutions that limit social mobility (such as those discussed in problem one and two) can be said to worsen income mobility intergenerationally, leading to higher inequality in the future. Though teasing out the direction of causality empirically can be challenging, there is reason for concern here if one is concerned about social mobility.

The main point I’m getting at is nothing new: one need not be a radical leftist social egalitarian who thinks equal economic outcomes are necessarily the only moral outcomes to be concerned on some level with inequality. How one responds to inequality is empirically dependent on the causes of the problems, and we have some good reasons to think that more limited government is a good solution to unequal outcomes.

This is not to say inequality poses no problem for libertarians’ ideal political order: if it is the case that markets inherently beget problematic levels of inequality, as for example Thomas Piketty claims, then we might need to re-evaluate how we integrate markets. However, there is good reason to be skeptical of such claims (Thomas Piketty’s in particular are suspect). Even if we grant that markets by themselves do lead to levels of inequality that cause problems 3-5, we must not commit the Nirvana fallacy. We need to compare government’s aptitude at managing income distribution, which for well-worn public choice reasons outlined in problems one and two as well as a mammoth epistemic problem inherent in figuring out how much inequality is likely to lead to those problems, and compare it to the extent to which markets do generate those problems. It is possible (very likely, even) that even if markets are not perfect in the sense of ensuring distribution that does not have problematic political economic outcomes, the state attempting to correct these outcomes would only make things worse.

But that is a complex empirical research project which obviously can’t be solved in this short blog post, suffice it to say now that though libertarians are right to be skeptical of overarching moralistic outrage about rising levels of inequality, there are other very good empirical reasons to be concerned.