Tech’s Ethical Dark Side

An article at the NY Times opens:

The medical profession has an ethic: First, do no harm.

Silicon Valley has an ethos: Build it first and ask for forgiveness later.

Now, in the wake of fake news and other troubles at tech companies, universities that helped produce some of Silicon Valley’s top technologists are hustling to bring a more medicine-like morality to computer science.

Far be it from me to tell people to avoid spending time considering ethics. But something seems a bit silly to me about all this. The “experts” are trying to teach students the consequences of the complex interactions between the services they haven’t yet created and the world as it doesn’t yet exist.

My inner cynic sees this “ethics of tech” movement as a push to have software engineers become nanny-state-like social engineers. “First do no harm” is not the right standard for tech (which isn’t to say “do harm” is). Before 2016 Facebook and Twitter were praised for their positive contribution to the Arab Spring. After our dumb election the educated western elite threw up our hands and said, “it’s an ethical breach to reduce our power!” Freedom is messy, and “do no harm” privileges the status quo.

The root problem is that computer services interact with the public in complex ways. Recognizing this is important and an ethics class ought to grapple with that complexity and the resulting uncertainty in how our decisions (including design decisions) can affect the well being of others. My worry is that a sensible call to think about these issues will be co-opted by power-hungry bureaucrats. (There really ought to be ethics classes on the “Dark Side of Ethical Judgments of Others and Education Policy”.)

I don’t doubt that the motivations of the people involved are basically good, but I’m deeply skeptical of their ability to do much more than offer retrospective analysis as particular events become less relevant. History is important, but let’s not trick ourselves into thinking the lessons of 2016 Facebook will apply neatly to whatever network we’re on in 2026.

It hardly seems reasonable to insist that Facebook be put in charge of what we get to see. Some argue that’s already the world we live in, and they aren’t completely wrong. But that authority is still determined by the voluntary individual decision of users with access to plenty of alternatives. People aren’t always as thoughtful and deliberate as I’d like, but that doesn’t mean I should step in and be a thoughtful and deliberate Orwellian figure on their behalf.


2018 Hayek Essay Contest

The 2018 General Meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society will take place from September 30 – October 6, 2018 at ExpoMeloneras and Lopesan Hotels in Meloneras, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. As with past general meetings, the Mont Pelerin Society is currently soliciting submissions for Friedrich A. Hayek Fellowships. The fellowships will be awarded through the Hayek Essay Contest.

The Hayek Essay Contest is open to all individuals 36 years old or younger. Entrants should write a 5,000 word (maximum) essay that addresses the quotation(s) and question(s) detailed on the contest announcement (available at the above link). The deadline for submissions is May 31, 2018. The winners will be announced on July 31, 2018. Essays must be submitted in English only. Electronic submissions should be sent in PDF format to this email address ( Authors of winning essays must present their papers at the General Meeting to receive their award. The essays will be judged by an international panel of three members of the Society.

Please feel free to share this announcement with any individuals who may have an interest in submitting an essay for consideration of a fellowship award. All questions may be directed to the MPS Young Scholars Program Committee by email at or phone at +1.806.742.7138.

MPS Young Scholars Program Committee

Ayn Rand and International Politics

In a previous post I promised to write about Ayn Rand and her views on international politics, based on a recently published article.

I find Ayn Rand a fascinating figure in libertarian history, for a number of reasons. Her life style and ways she went about it in her life are so far distanced from me, that made me curious. Some of her philosophical ideas are great, others do not appeal to me at all. I plainly admire her for making the moral case for capitalism and individualism, which stands out in the economist-dominated libertarian tradition.

I am on the one hand annoyed by the way she fostered such cult-like circle of followers, in her own day and after her death in 1982, that led to dogmatism and intellectual isolationism, which goes against all basic academic standards I think are crucial.

On the other hand, I think the people at the Ayn Rand Institute do a great job preserving her legacy and attempting to widen her appeal. Overall, I am convinced that no matter what your take on this fascinating figure or her work is, Rand deserves to be studied in academia, because she remains influential to this day, especially in the US, and left a serious collection of writings that warrant intellectual analysis, even by people who do not consider themselves Randian.

Against this background I made a comparison between mainstream liberal theories of International Relations (IR) and the ideas on world affairs of Ayn Rand. The brief summary of the first is as follows:

  • World peace is attainable, in the belief that humans are rational enough to overcome war and conflict.
  • The nation is seen as a problematic actor in world affairs. Its room for maneuvering needs to be curtailed, including the importance of the balance of power between states, and the alleged influence of ‘war mongering’ diplomats and the so-called military-industrial complex.
  • Peace oriented foreign policies can be fostered by domestic institutional arrangements, most notably democracy (democratic peace theory).
  • In the international realm, there is an important role for intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, regimes and international law (liberal institutionalism), which aim to overcome or neutralize the effects of the logic of power politics.
  • International trade is also expected to foster peace, often in combination with the alleged pacifying influence of interest groups and public opinion of foreign policy decision-making.
  • A recent addition is the broad support for humanitarian intervention.

To keep this blog at readable length I will not go into the details of Rand’s writings, but limit myself to her main views on these ideas, which should be seen in the context of her fierce opposition to the Soviet Union and its allies in the Cold War, and her concern for America losing its super power position through internal causes, not least the loss of the individual liberty-enhancing spirit among the American people.

  • In contrast to classical liberals from Smith to Hayek, Rand did indeed think that world peace would be attainable, but only in an Objectivist world. Among rational men living according the Objectivist principles there would be a harmony of rational interests. Yet in the current world there was also abundant irrational behaviour, bad morality, and other grounds for dispute.
  • The main causes of war were not material issues, domestic interests, institutional arrangements, or the structure of the international system. Rather, war was rooted in human nature. It went back to the tribal era, when brute force was the prime rule of conduct. The (socialist) dictatorships were contemporary examples in her mind, with their lack of respect for the rights of their own citizens, and those of foreigners alike. ‘Statism needs war, a free country does not’.
  • Rand was inconsistent in her valuation of the power of public opinion. She noted that most people often do not want war. Yet the origins of war still lay with those civilians, also in non-democratic regimes, because they failed to reject the doctrine that it was right and justified to achieve goals by physical force. If people put up with a dictatorship like the Soviet Union, or decided not to flee, they were co-responsible for the deeds, and deserved the same fate as their government.
  • Rand recognized that individuals live in groups or communities, but she regarded respect for tribal roots, ethnicity, and regional languages as uncivil and, above all, irrational and a limit on individual liberty. Ethnicity was also an important cause of war. Nationalism was perhaps less abstract than Marxism, but it was at least as vicious in stirring emotions such as hatred, fear, and suspicion. Therefore rational people would altogether disregard their roots as guides in (political) life.
  • Rand had two positions on the issues of sovereignty and intervention, depending on the moral character of the nation in question. Sovereignty was a right that had to be earned, but could also be forfeited. If a nation fully respected the principle of individual rights, it’s right to sovereignty was morally secured and should be respected by other nations. However, if a state violated the rights of its citizens it would lose its sovereign rights. ‘A nation ruled by brute force is not a nation, but a horde, whether led by Atilla, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Khrushchev, or Castro.’
  • Dictatorships were outlaws and could therefore be invaded as a matter of choice for the free nations, although there was no duty to do so. The right to self-determination and sovereignty only existed for free nations, and for societies seeking to establish freedom.
  • Yet this way, anarchy loomed. Rand divided the world into three groups of countries. First, countries complying to the Objectivist principles, with full sovereign rights. Second, countries on their way to freedom, often referred to as ‘mixed economies’, or half-way houses between freedom and dictatorship. Third, countries not worth existing, such as dictatorships and tyrannies. Unfortunately, the world lacked fully free countries. The mixed economies did not have unlimited right of intervention, they could only interfere when another country seriously breached Objectivist principles, for example by establishing one party rule, enacting censorship laws, executing people for political offences without trial, or nationalizing or expropriating private property.
  • Rand acknowledged the perpetual influence of power in world politics. The character of international politics was, and always had been among states, a balance of power game.
  • The US army was under domestic, non-patriotic attack for its virtues, for being a competent and strong force. It was unwise to cut the defence budget, while -in another contrast to liberal IR thought- ‘the military-industrial complex’ was ‘a myth or worse’.
  • Statism at the international level, in the form of ‘a planetary community’ and other cosmopolitan ideas had to be rejected. The collaboration of semi-free countries with communist dictatorships in the UN was evil and stood in contrast to reason, ethics, and civilization. The UN provided the Russian camp with prestige and moral sanction, suggesting that ‘the difference between human rights and mass slaughter is just a matter of opinion’.
  • Another point of contention with the social liberals was development cooperation. Foreign aid was nothing but ‘altruism extended to the international realm’.
  • While, in contrast to social liberals, she lacked faith in international law as such, Rand did regard international treaties as firm obligations.
  • Also, Rand saw peaceful effects of laissez-faire capitalism, because it was based on the recognition of self-interest by free individuals and the non-initiation of force. Capitalism fostered a society of traders. Therefore the essence of Objectivist foreign policy had to be free trade.

To briefly sum up: Rand’s writing show that not all liberals are peace-seeking cosmopolitans, attempting to minimise the role of the nation, the balance of power, the military, and warfare in international relations. She rejected most forms of international governmental organization and other expressions of liberal institutionalism. Often her ideas lack sufficient (legal) detail, while they are also centred on America, and hence limited to the perspective of an influential super power with large military capacity. Yet her writings show that fostering liberty in international relations can be done in several ways, and that different liberals have different ideas about the route towards that goal.


The Dictator’s Handbook

I recently pointed you towards a book that has turned out to be a compelling and interesting read.

At the end of the day, it’s a straightforward application of public choice theory and evolutionary thinking to questions of power. Easy to understand theory is bundled with data and anecdotes* to elucidate the incentives facing dictators, democrats, executives, and public administrators. The differences between them are not discrete: they all face the same basic problem of compelling others’ behavior while facing some threat of replacement.

Nobody rules alone, so staying in power means keeping the right people happy and/or afraid. All leaders are constrained by their underlings. These underlings are necessary to get anything done, but they’re also potential rivals. For Bueno de Mesquita and Smith the crucial facts of a political order are a) how big a coalition (how many underlings) the ruler is beholden too and b) how replaceable the members of that coalition are.

The difference between liberal and illiberal orders boil down to differences in those two parameters. In democracies with a larger coalition and less replaceable coalition members, rulers behave better.


I got a Calculus of Consent flavor from Dictator’s Handbook. At the end of the day, collective decision making will reflect some version of “the will of the people… who matter.” But when we ask about the number of people who matter, we run into C of C thinking. Calling for bigger coalitions is another way of calling for an approach to an effective unanimity rule (at least at the constitutional stage).

In C of C the question of the optimal voting rule (majority vs. super majority vs. unanimity) boils down to a tradeoff between the costs of organizing and the costs of externalities imposed by the ruling coalition. On the graph below (from C of C) we’re comparing organization costs (J) against externality costs (I) (the net costs of the winning coalition’s inefficient policies). The idea is that a unanimity rule would prevent tyranny of the majority (i.e. I is downward sloping), but that doesn’t mean unanimity is the optimal voting rule.

Figure 18.  Click to open in new window.

But instead of asking “what’s efficient” let’s think think about what we can afford out of society’s production, then ask who makes what decisions. In a loose sense, we can think of a horizontal line on the graph above representing our level of wealth. If we** aren’t wealthy enough to organize, then the elites rule and maximize rent extraction. We can’t get far up J, so whichever coalition is able to rule imposes external costs at a high level on I.

But I‘s height is a function of rent extraction. Rulers face the classic conundrum of whether to take a smaller piece of a larger pie.

The book confirms what we already know: when one group can make decisions about what other groups can or must do, expect a negative sum game. But by throwing in evolutionary thinking it shed light on why we see neither an inexorable march of progress nor universal tyranny and misery.

As you travel back in time, people (on average) tend to look more ignorant, cruel, and superstitious. The “default state” of humanity is poverty and ignorance. The key to understanding economics is realizing that we’ve bootstrapped ourselves out of that position and we aren’t done yet.

The Dictator’s Handbook helped me realize that I’d been forgetting that the “default state” of political power is rule by force. The liberalization we’ve seen over the last 500 years has been just the first part of a bootstrapping process.

Understanding the starting point makes it clear that more inclusive systems use ideas, institutions, capital, and technology to abstract upward to more complex levels. Something like martial honor scales up the exercise of power from the tribe (who can The Chief beat up) to the fiefdom (now the Chief has sub-chiefs). Ideology and identity can tie fiefdoms into nation-states (now we’ve got a king and nobility). Wealth plus new ideologies create more inclusive and democratic political orders (now we’ve got a president and political parties). But each stage is built on the foundation set before. We stand on the shoulders of giants, but those giants were propped up by the non-giants around them.

Our world was built by backwards savages. The good news is that we can use the flimsier parts of the social structure we inherited as scaffolding for something better (while maintaining the really good stuff). What exactly this means is the tricky question. Which rules, traditions, organizations, and processes are worth keeping? How do we maintain those? How/when do we replace the rest? And what does “we” even mean?

Changing the world involves uncertainty. There are complex interrelations between every part of reality. And the knowledge society needs is scattered through many different minds. To make society better, we need buy-in from our neighbors (nobody rules alone). And we need to realize that the force we exert will be countered by an equal and opposite force some plural, imperfectly identifiable, maybe-but-probably-not equal, and only-mostly-opposite forces. There are complex and constantly shifting balances between different coalitions vying for power and the non-coalitions that might suddenly spring into action if conditions are right. Understanding the forces at play helps us see the constraints to political change.

And there’s good news: it is possible to create a ruling coalition that is more inclusive. The conditions have to be right. But at least some of those conditions are malleable. If we can sell people on the right ideas, we can push the world in the right direction. But we have to work at it, because there are plenty of people pitching ideas that will concentrate power and create illiberal outcomes.

*I read the audiobook, so I’m basically unable to vouch for the data analysis. Everything they said matched the arguments they were making, but without seeing it laid out on the page I couldn’t tell you whether what they left out was reasonable.

**Whatever that means…


What classes are worth subsidizing?

A friend of mine has a great phrase that captures what’s wrong with about 1/3 of the population. They’re “people who would make good Nazis.” These are the obedient people who are ready to follow orders without thinking without having sufficiently high standards for whose orders they’ll follow.

My question is “what can I do to help my students not fall into this category?” The trouble is that these folks aren’t drawn to intellectual arguments. I need to get them in a more visceral way. I think the answer is art. These kids need to be watching TV shows and movies/shows like Donnie Darko and The Handmaid’s Tale (tell me your favorites in the comments!). They need something that will grab them by the lapels, shake them, and shout “question authority!”

Pragmatic folks (the sort of people who are normally excited to hear what a libertarian economist has to say) would usually think that schools should focus on pragmatic things. It’s certainly a good idea for kids to leave school with some ideas about how to manage their personal finances and research important issues. But the economic justification for subsidies rarely favors such pragmatic topics. Petroleum engineers don’t need their schooling subsidized because they’ll end up getting paid enough to pay off their student loans.

I like to think of myself as a pragmatic person*, but I’m increasingly coming around to the idea that art is worth subsidizing. Even (perhaps) if that means giving money to ridiculous people who argue incoherently against freedom.

Bildergebnis für ned flanders parents

As subsidies go, art is cheap. You don’t need to build anything as complicated as a particle accelerator. You just need to grab some kid out of the nearest Starbucks and give them a few bucks to make something.

You’ll end up paying for a lot of garbage, but life is full of waste (I’d bet good money that any good project involves a good amount of unrealized potential savings that are only obvious after the fact). For that matter, you’ll almost certainly do some degree of harm. If we threw money at art departments (the way we did with STEM departments during the cold war) the money spent on Che shirts could easily fuel the western hemisphere by attaching a generator to Guevara’s spinning corpse.

And the benefits will be vague and arguable. I’m not in the business of selling bonafide snake oil; this idea isn’t a magical cure-all.

In fact, the more you try to measure the benefits, the less benefit you might get. If we could measure important but intangible things like decency and thoughtfulness, we’d already have those things. But when we try to come up with proxies for important things, those proxies quickly become bad proxies. All the more so if we try to reward people for measurable achieving our goals. Funding should be unconditional (and focused on production rather than selection) if we want to avoid funding propaganda. We almost certainly will be funding propaganda, but if humanity is really worth saving, it’s a baby/bathwater tradeoff.

I’ve just spent three paragraphs convincing you that this might be a terrible idea. But I still think the net benefits could justify the cost. Imagine some imperfect estimate of the impact and an even more imperfect measure of the value created. What will we get out of this (on average)? In a word: more. More novels, web comics, paintings, podcasts, and films.

And with more art, there’s more cream to rise to the top. The best art typically encourages thoughtfulness and empathy. This is a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach that would (at relatively low cost) saturate the public sphere with enough semi-thoughtful stuff to force usually-thoughtless people to think more clearly about the world around them.

If** we can subsidize free thought, this is how we’ll do it. And if it’s possible, it’s worth doing in a world where we clearly have too many people who would make good Nazis.

*If that was really true I’d work in a bank.

**Do I really think this would work? I’m not remotely sure. But I think it’s an idea worth discussing. I teach economics because I hope the marginal return (in terms of improving the “civic quality” of my students) is high. But it feels Sisyphusian at times, and some students are clearly not ready to get it. I worry that they’ll go out into the world ready to follow any maniac’s orders. In terms of the stability of a free and peaceful society, doing something about those people seems important.


Libertarianism, Classical Liberalism, Right Wing Populism, and Democracy

An interesting exchange has occurred between Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center and Ilya Somin writing for the Washington Post on the issue of the influence of libertarianism over the modern Republican Party’s erosion of liberal democratic norms. In his initial piece, Wilkinson seemed to argue that the Libertarian view of absolutism in regards to property rights which was a way to offer an emotionally gratifying alternative to socialist redistribution was responsible for the Right’s adoption of a populist outlook which eroded democratic norms, for example, policies like Voter ID and Gerrymandering. Ilya Somin responded by pointing out that the libertarian “absolutist” conception of property rights had next to nothing to do with why many libertarians Wilkinson cites are skeptical of democracy. Wilkinson responded by saying his initial argument was confusingly stated, not that absolutist property rights is driving democratic erosion on the part of the right, by trying to clarify his distinction between “libertarian” and “classical liberal.” Somin pointed out that this response undermines the force of Wilkinson’s initial argument and took issue with some of his other points.

I wish to contribute to this debate because, even though Somin is largely right that Wilkinson’s argument is weakened by his clarification, I think both have missed that Wilkinson has fundamentally misunderstood what right-wing populism is and why it is a threat to democracy. Modern right-wing populism does not try to erode majoritarian democracy, even if it erodes some of the institutional norms which make it possible for modern liberal democracy to function. Rather, populism, in its many forms, weaponizes democratic rhetoric which is premised on the very notions which libertarians and classical liberals critical of democracy seek to challenge. Attempts to tie such criticisms to the modern right is absurd and distracts us from confronting those aspects which are actually threatening about the right’s pathologies. Afterwards, I will comment on some of the other minor confusions into which I believe Wilkinson falls.

Populism and Folk Democratic Intuitions

In Wilkinson’s genealogy, the root of modern libertarianism is an attempt to weaponize classical liberalism’s defense of property against the desire for socialist redistribution. As he tells it, classical liberals like Hayek and Buchanan sought to put trigger locks on democracy in the form of constitutional constraints on majority rule whereas radical libertarians like Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard sought to disarm democracy altogether from violating property rights. This conception leaves no room for any analysis of or support for democratic decision-making. Since the end of the Cold War, the right has continued to believe this absolutist property rights argument was extremely important even after the Red Menace had been slain and so is willing to do anything, including throwing democracy under the bus, to defend property rights. As Wilkinson puts it:

And that’s why ideological free-market conservatives tend to be so accommodating to, if not exactly comfortable with, populist white identity politics. In their minds, mundane left-right differences about tax rates and the generosity of the welfare state are recast as a Manichean clash between the light of free enterprise and the darkness of socialist expropriation. This, in turn, has made it seem morally okay, maybe even urgently necessary, to do whatever it takes—bunking down with racists, aggressively redistricting, inventing paper-thin pretexts for voting rules that disproportionately hurt Democrats, whatever—to prevent majorities from voting themselves a bigger slice of the pie.

In his follow up, after Somin pointed out that irrational factors like partisanship are more likely to influence a voter’s decision than complicated moral theories such as property rights, Wilkinson attempted to make this argument more plausible by giving the hypothetical example of a white working-class republican voter who, while not fully libertarian, uses his thin knowledge of libertarian property rights absolutism as a form of motivated reasoning justifying his erosion of democratic norms:

Burt is a moderately politically engaged mechanical engineer with ordinary civics-class ideas about democracy, as well as a strong distaste for paying his taxes. (He wants to buy a boat.) One day Burt picks up Atlas Shrugged on the recommendation of a friend, likes it a lot, and spends a few weeks poking around libertarian precincts of the Internet, where he encounters a number of libertarian arguments, like Rand’s, that say that taxation violates a basic, morally inviolable right. Burt happens to find these arguments extremely convincing, especially if he’s been idly shopping for boats online. Moreover, these arguments strongly suggest to Burt that democracy is a dangerous institution by which parasitic slackers steal things from hyper-competent hard workers, like Burt.

Now, none of this leads Burt to think of himself as a “libertarian.” He thinks of himself as a Lutheran, a moderate Republican, and a very serious Whovian. He’s suspicious of “free trade.” He’s “tough on crime.” Burt would never disrespect “our troops” by opposing a war, and he thinks legalizing drugs is bananas. Make no mistake: Burt is not a libertarian. But selective, motivated exposure to a small handful of libertarian arguments has left Burt even more indignant about taxes, and a bit sour on democracy—an altogether new attitude that makes him feel naughtily iconoclastic and a wee bit brave. Over time, the details of these arguments have faded for Burt, but the sentiments around taxation, redistribution, and democracy have stuck.

Ayn Rand and the other libertarian thinkers Burt encountered in his brief flush of post-Atlas Shrugged enthusiasm wanted him to be indignant about redistribution and wanted him to be sour on democracy. He drew the inferences their arguments were designed to elicit. The fact that he’s positively hostile to other elements of the libertarian package can’t mean he hasn’t been influenced by libertarian ideas.

Let’s suppose that, a few years later, a voter-ID ballot initiative comes up in Burt’s state. The local news tells Burt that this will likely make it harder for Democrats to win by keeping poorer people without IDs away from the polls. Burt rightly surmises that these folks are likely to vote, if they can, to take even more of his money in taxes. A policy that would make it less likely for those people to cast a ballot sounds great to Burt. Then it occurs to him, with a mild pang of Christian guilt, that this is a pretty selfish attitude. But then Burt remembers those very convincing arguments about the wickedness of democratic redistribution, and it makes him feel better about supporting the voter-ID requirement. Besides, he gives at church. So he votes for the initiative come election day.

That’s influence. And it’s not trifling, if there are a lot of Burts. I think there are a lot of Burts. Even if the partisan desire to stick it to Democrats is doing most of the work in driving Burt’s policy preference, the bit of lightly-held libertarian property rights absolutism that got into Burt’s system can still be decisive. If it gives him moral permission to act on partisan or racial or pecuniary motives that he might otherwise suppress, the influence might not be so small.

The problem here is not just, as Somin says, that this dances around the issue that people like Burt have become less libertarian over time and so it seems silly to blame libertarianism for his actions. It sounds as if Wilkinson has never actually talked to a populist-leaning voter like Burt. If you do, you will not find that Burt is skeptical of democracy or sees himself as defending some important ideal of laissez-faire capitalism against irrational socialist voters who are using democracy to destroy it. It is more likely that you will find that Burt sees himself as defending the “silent majority” who democracy should rightly represent from evil liberal, socialist and “cultural Marxist” elites who are undermining democracy, and how Trump will stop all the elitist liberals in the courts and media from alienating the common man with common sense by “draining the swamp.”

Read, for example, Rothbard’s original call for libertarians to ally with nationalist right-wing populists. In it, you’ll find no mention of how small “d” democracy attacks property rights because voters are rationally ignorant, and you won’t find, to quote Wilkinson, skepticism towards “a perspective that bestows dignity upon democracy and the common citizen’s democratic role.” Instead, you’ll find that the “grassroots” of the right-wing common man like the secessionists and neo-confederates who are defending property rights against the “socialist tyranny” of the “beltway elites,” Clintons, and the Federal Reserve. Modern adherents to this Rothbardian populist strategy define populism as “a political strategy that aims to mobilize a largely alienated base of the populace against out-of-control elites.” It sounds more like a radically majoritarian, Jacksonian screed about how the voice of the people needs to be truly represented.

Importantly, what the libertarian populists are trying to do is take the folk democratic intuitions which populist right-wingers have, intuitions upon which most peoples’ beliefs in the legitimacy of democracy rely, and channel those intuitions in a more thinly “libertarian” direction. Unfortunately, this is why many modern right-libertarians in the style of Ron Paul are impotent against white supremacists and often try to cozy up to them: because an important part of their strategy is to regurgitate the vulgar democratic rhetoric in which populists believe.

By contrast, modern skeptics of democracy in libertarian circles (or “classical liberal” or “cultural libertarian,” whichever semantic game Wilkinson wants to play to make his argument coherent), such as Ilya Somin, Bryan Caplan, and Jason Brennan, fundamentally undermine those folk democratic intuitions. While right-wing populists believe that the “common man” with his “common sense” knows better how the world works than the evil conniving academic elite does, the libertarian skeptic of democracy points out that the majority of voters know next to nothing and fail to be competent voters due to their rational ignorance. While populist voters believe that the voice of the majority should rule our governing structure, public choice tells us that “majority will” is mostly an illusionary concept. While populist voters believe that the “trigger locks” like courts are evil impediments to the people’s will and regularly attack them, libertarian skeptics of democracy view such institutions as the last line of defense against the irrational and ignorant mob of hooligan voters.

In fact, if people listened to folks like Somin and Brennan, populism of the sort that we’ve seen on the right would be an impossible position to maintain. This is partially why Rothbard largely rejected the public-choice analysis on which scholarship like Somin’s depends.

To try to link modern public choice-inspired skepticism of democracy with populism of any form, even in its most pseudo-libertarian form of the late Rothbard, is to grossly misunderstand populism, classical liberalism, and libertarianism. It seems rather odd to blame Somin and company for the rise of a political ideology which their arguments render incoherent. A Nancy MacLean-like conspiracy to undermine majority rule doesn’t have much of anything to do with the modern right when they think they are the majority who’s being oppressed by elites.

Neither is this some trivial matter of simply assigning blame incorrectly. The problem with populism on the right which has eroded American democracy is not that it thinks democracy is wrong, most populists naively have a lot of folk intuitions which imply some sort of vague proceduralist justification of strongly majority rule. Rather, they’ve taken the majoritarian, quasi-Jacksonian rhetoric (rhetoric to which libertarians other than Rothbard and classical liberals alike have mostly been opposed) which democrats often use and weaponized it in a manner that undermines the non-majoritarian norms on which liberal democracy is dependent for functioning. For someone like Wilkinson, who defends liberal democracy vigorously, misunderstanding the very nature of the threat seems like a particularly grave error as it renders his arguments impotent against it.

Democratic Majoritarianism versus Democratic Norms

In part, I think Wilkinson falls for this trap because he makes a conceptual confusion between the non-majoritarian liberal ideals on which democracy depends—towards which most libertarians are sympathetic—and democracy’s institutional form as majority rule. I’ve described this as a distinction between “institutional democracy” and “philosophical democracy” in the past, and have argued that one can uphold philosophical democratic norms while being skeptical of the current institutions in which they are embedded. Wilkinson argues, citing an article by Samuel Freeman, that libertarian absolutist conception of property is inherently illiberal as it implies a sort of propertarian, feudalist order. Of course, Wilkinson neglects to mention a response to Freeman by Peter Boettke and Rosolino Candela claiming that Freeman misunderstands the role property rights play in libertarian theory.

I am not an absolutist natural property rights-oriented libertarian at all, however in their defense, it is wrong for Wilkinson to think that belief in absolutist property rights—even to the point that one becomes an anarchist like Rothbard—means one is necessarily willing to do anything to undermine democracy to defend property rights. As Somin mentions, not all libertarian absolutists in property completely disbelieved in government like Nozick, but more importantly one can be an anarchist who is strongly skeptical of democracy for largely propertarian reasons but still believes, given that we have democracy, certain norms need to be upheld.

Norms such as equality before the law, equal footing in public elections (which Gerrymandering violates), and equal access to political power (which Voter ID laws violate). Just because one believes neo-Lockean arguments about property rights are valid does not mean one cannot coherently also endorse broadly Hayekian accounts of non-majoritarian liberal norms which make it possible for democracies to function (what Wilkinson calls “trigger locks”), even if in particular instances it might result in some property rights violations.

In other words, one can be skeptical that institutional democracy is moral for libertarian reasons while still embracing a broadly philosophically democratic outlook, or simply believe it is preferable to keep some democratic norms intact given that we have a democracy as an nth best possible solution.

What Wilkinson takes issue with is how the modern right attacks the sort of norms which make democracy work, norms with which no libertarian ought to take issue with given that we have a democracy as they are precisely the “trigger locks” which Hayek called for (even if libertarians want much stronger trigger locks to the point of effectively disarming governments). To think these norms are identical with how many libertarians think the specific voting mechanisms which democracy features are flawed is a conceptual confusion.

An Alternative Account of the Relationship between Libertarianism and the Right’s Pathologies

To me, it seems that Wilkinson’s attempt to shoehorn the somewhat nuanced (by the standards of electoral politics, if not by the standards of academic philosophical argumentation) philosophical arguments of Nozick and Rothbard into an account of the rise of Trumpian politics seems fundamentally inconsistent with the way we know voters act. Even if voters sometimes use indirect intellectual influences as a way to reason about their voting preferences in a motivated manner likes Wilkinson imagines, it’s not really explaining why they need to use such motivated reasoning in the first place. Here’s an alternative account:

During the Cold War, as Wilkinson notes, libertarians and conservatives had a common enemy in communism and socialism. As a result, fusionism happened and libertarians and conservatives started cheering for the same political team. After the end of the cold war, fusionism continued and libertarians found it hard to stop cheering for the “red” team for the same tribalist reasons we know non-libertarian irrational voters remain fiercely loyal to their political parties. Today, even though the GOP is becoming extremely less libertarian, some libertarians find it hard to stop cheering for the GOP for the same reasons New England Patriots fans still cheer for Tom Brady after the deflation scandal: old tribalist affiliations are hard to break.

The only real link between libertarians and modern right-wing pathologies are that some voters who have vaguely libertarian ideas still cheer for populist right-wingers in the GOP because they’re irrational hooligans who hate the left for tribalist reasons. This accords better with the fact voters aren’t all that ideological, that they (unlike Burt who’s interested in just lowering his own taxes selfishly) vote based off of perceived national interest more than self-interest, and how we know generally voters behave in partisan tribalist patterns. But this doesn’t make libertarianism any more culpable for the rise of the modern right’s erosion of democratic norms any more than (and probably less than given its limited influence) any other ideological current which has swayed the right to any degree.

How does this make sense of Wilkinson’s only real, non-hypothetical evidence of libertarian influence on the modern GOP, that some right wing politicians like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul sometimes cite Ayn Rand and Rothbard? Politicians sometimes use intellectual influences haphazardly to engage in certain sorts of motivated-reasoning to cater to subsets of voters, even though they overwhelmingly disagree with those thinkers. This why Paul Ryan first praised Ayn Rand, to get some voters who like Rand, and then later emphasized how much he rejected Rand. This is why Rand Paul cites libertarians simply to virtue-signal to some subset of libertarianish voters while constantly supporting extremely un-libertarian policies. Ted Cruz has said that conservatives “should talk about policy with a Rawlsian lens,” but nobody thinks that Rawls has been particularly influential over Cruz’s policy decisions. All politicians do when they cite an intellectual influence is try to play to cater to the tribalist, pseudo-intellectual inklings of some nerdy voters (“I read the same guys as you do, therefore I’m on your team”), it usually doesn’t mean they really were deeply influenced by or even understand the thinker they cite.

Libertarians and Classical Liberals

Let me conclude this article by addressing a side-issue of how to parse out the distinction between classical liberals and libertarians. One of Wilkinson’s ways of clarifying his disagreement with Somin was by claiming that there is something fundamentally different between “libertarianism” and “classical liberalism.” As Wilkinson puts it:

Absolutist rights-based libertarianism isn’t really part of this conversation at all. It’s effectively an argument against liberalism and the legitimacy of liberal political institutions, which is why it’s so confusing that the folk taxonomy lumps libertarianism and classical liberalism together, and sets them against standard left-liberalism. The dispute between liberalism and hardcore libertarianism concerns whether it’s possible to justify democratic political authority at all. The dispute within liberalism, about the status of economic rights and the legitimate scope of democratic decision-making, is much smaller than that.

Thus, Wilkinson seems to think that libertarians think political authority can’t be justified given that property rights are absolute and that classical liberals just think economic liberties should be included as liberal liberties. However, in my view this taxonomy of ideologies is still confused. Many who typically count as “libertarians” do not fit neatly into such a schema and need to be ignored.

You need to ignore significant portions of libertarians who still endorse property rights but think they are insufficient to a full conception of liberty and endorse other liberal freedoms, like the aforementioned Peter Boettke paper. You need to ignore intuitionist libertarians who do not endorse an absolutist conception of property rights but still dispute that political authority is justified at all, like Mike Huemer. You need to ignore consequentialists who do not embrace absolutist property rights as a philosophical position but think some sort of absolutist property-based anarchist society is desirable against liberal democracy, like David Friedman and Don Lavoie’s students. You need to ignore “thick” left libertarians like Charles Johnson and Gary Chartier who endorse libertarian views of rights yet think they imply far more egalitarian leftist positions. Further, you’d need to claim that most people the public readily identifies as some of the most influential libertarians of all time, like Hayek and Milton Friedman, are not actually libertarian which obscures rather than clarifies communication. Basically, the distinction is only useful if you’re trying to narrowly clarify disagreements between someone like JS Mill and someone like Rothbard.

I agree that there are distinctions between “libertarians” and “classical liberals” that can be drawn and the folk taxonomy that treats them creates a lot of confusion. However, it seems obvious if one talks to most libertarians, there is more going on in their ideology than just “property rights are absolute” and that there is a strong intermingled influence between even the most radical of anarchist libertarians and classical liberals. It is also true that there are a small minority of libertarians who are thoroughly illiberal (like Hoppe), but it seems better to just call such odd illiberal aberrations “propertarian” and still treat most libertarians as a particularly radical subset of classical liberals.

Ultimately, however, I think this taxonomical dispute, while interesting, isn’t particularly closely related to the problem at hand: the relationship between right-wing populism and libertarianism.


Rules for Rulers

Watch to the end for details about the book (by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith) this video is based on.

  1. I think readers of NoL will enjoy this nicely condensed public-choice-y analysis of the constraints involved in operating (and thus changing) a government.
  2. The audiobook is available on Overdrive, so you can borrow it from your library. I’m just started listening to it and I’m enjoying it immensely.
  3. I suddenly found myself as the benevolent dictator of some country. My long-term objective is to shape my society into a libertarian utopia. Here’s my plan to deal with the constraints discussed in the video: all of my advisors are required to play devil’s advocate when I propose some change. Yes-men will be summarily executed. Assuming I stay benevolent but also ruthless, does my devil’s advocate scheme work out? Please discuss in the comments. Anyone who doesn’t earnestly try to poke holes in my idea will be sent to the work camps.