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.

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Worth a gander

  1. Zero hour for Generation X
  2. Confederate flags and Nazi swastikas together? That’s new.
  3. America at the end of all hypotheticals
  4. What’s left of libertarianism?
  5. Factual free market fairness
  6. Thinking about costs and benefits of immigration

Some Thoughts on State Capacity

State capacity is an important topic and the subject of much recent attention in both development economics and economic history. Together with Noel Johnson I’ve recently written a survey article on the topic (here). At the same time, many libertarians and classical liberals are uncomfortable with the concept (see here and here). I think these criticisms are useful but misplaced. Addressing them will hopefully move the debate forward in a useful fashion.

Here I will just focus one issue. This is the argument recently made by Alex Salter that state capacity is a black box. Alex notes correctly that we have a detailed and convincing theory for how markets can lead to economic growth (by directing resources to their most efficient use). In contrast, according to Alex:

“State capacity, by itself, addresses neither the information issue nor the incentive issue. While governance institutions obviously began centralizing at the beginning of the modern era, this is just a morphological description of what happened to institutions. On its own, that’s insufficient as a causal explanation”.

I think Alex and other critics are on the wrong track here. State capacity is not alternative explanation for economic growth to that offered by markets. The relevant question is what impeded market development before, say, 1700, and what enabled the growth of markets after around 1700. The evidence provided by a body of research suggests that prior to 1700 market development was impeded by political fragmentation both within and between states. Critics of the state capacity argument should engage with this literature.

A second claim Alex makes is that we lack a theory for why the more centralized states that arose after 1700 were less rent-seeking and predatory than their weaker and more internally fragmented predecessors. But in fact we have a fairly good understanding of many of the mechanisms responsible for the demise of the more costly forms of recent seeking that characterized medieval and early modern Europe. This understanding is based on the work of James Buchanan and Mancur Olson.

The basic argument is this. Medieval and early modern states were mostly devices for rent-extraction and rent-seeking. But this rent-extraction and rent-seeking was largely decentralized. They collected taxes through a variety of costly and inefficient means (such as selling monopolies). They then spent the tax revenue on costly wars.

Decentralized rent-extraction was costly and inefficient. For example, it is well known that weights and measures varied from place to place in preindustrial Europe. What is less well known is that there were institutional reasons for this, as each local lord wanted to use his own measures in order to extract more surplus from the peasants who were forced to grind their grain using his mill. Local cities similarly used their own systems of weights and measures in order to extract surplus from traveling merchants. This benefited each local lord and city authority but imposed a large deadweight loss on the economy at large.

The logic of internal tariffs was similar. Each local lord or city would choose their internal tariffs in order to maximize their own income. But we know from elementary microeconomics that in this setting each local authority will set these tariffs “too high” because they will not take into account the effect of their tax rate on the tax revenue of their neighbors who also set their tariffs too high.

When early modern European rulers invested in state capacity, they sought to abolish or restrict such internal tariffs, to impose uniform taxes, and to standardize weights and measures. This resulted in a reduction in deadweight loss as when the king set the tax rate he considered the tax revenue he gets from his entire realm, and internalized the negative externality mentioned above.  The reasoning is identical to that which states that a single combined monopolist may be preferable to an up-stream and down-stream monopolist. When it comes to a public bad (like rent-seeking) a monopolist is preferable to competition.

Some thoughts on “Thinking About Libertarian Foreign Policy”

Brandon asked me to leave some thoughts on “Thinking About Libertarian Foreign Policy”, By Matthew Fay, here. Edwin van de Haar already did that in his “Foreign Policy in the Liberal Tradition: The Real Story”, but as I tend to follow a different path from van de Haar, I believe I may have something original to say here. So lets go.

First, unlike Edwin, I’m not going to go in the direction of discussing who is a libertarian, who is a conservative, who is a classical liberal, and so on. For one thing, I think that this kind of discussion is really boring (sorry Edwin, no offense intended, believe me). Other than that, it seems to me that discussing vocabulary is tremendously counterproductive. During the Cold War the US defined itself as a democracy. The USSR defined itself as a democracy as well. Both could meet and discuss who was really democratic, without any real gain. The same can be said about discussions within the socialist bloc: Chinese and Russians could discuss forever who was more Marxist, almost going to war because of that, without any real profit. Personally, I think I lost a lot of time some years ago discussing if Venezuela was democratic or not. And then they ran out of toilet paper. So I care not if communists want to call Venezuela a democratic state or not, the fact is that I don’t think any of them are willing to live without the simple but precious item of capitalist modern life.

With that said, if Matthew Fay wants to call his international relations perspective “libertarian,” so be it. But here are some commentaries from someone who usually calls himself libertarian:

“Libertarians have an uneasy relationship with foreign policy. The state, after all, is the primary actor in international relations.”

I wouldn’t say that. First, I’m a libertarian who studies foreign policy more than anything else. Second, I don’t think that we should say that “The state, after all, is the primary actor in international relations.” That’s simply not a good phrase to use when talking about International Relations. Better to say that the state is very often regarded as the primary actor in International Relations theory, especially by theorists who identify themselves as Realists. Other theorists would say that individuals, or international institutions, or international organizations are as or more important than the states.

“For libertarians, who want the state to do less, not more, this fact can be hard to stomach.”

I identify as a libertarian and I don’t exactly “want the state to do less.” I want the state to do some things and not others. I know that many libertarians (specially people at the Mises Institute, following Murray Rothbard) understand that anarcho-capitalism is the natural and logical conclusion for libertarians. I’m still not convinced. For example, I would like the state to do a lot about prosecuting murders and nothing about what I put in my own body.

“identifying an aggressor is difficult enough in interpersonal relations—let alone in international affairs.”

That’s something that goes at least to Robert Jervis’ 1978 article “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” but I openly disagree. If they are not invading your territory, then they’re not aggressors. They may be potential aggressors, or they may be aggressive, but they’re not aggressors. As an individual, I choose to carry a gun, or even better, to avoid certain neighborhoods. The states should, if possible, avoid certain neighborhoods. If that’s not possible, carry a gun. And definitely keep a gun at home and learn how to use it.

“even when the action of the U.S. government may be superior to that of another government, many libertarians have a difficult time acknowledging that government action is justified. For those reasons, many strict non-interventionist libertarians find themselves openly embracing illiberal governments that they claim are resisting American imperialism and condemning any American criticism of autocrats as a prelude to ‘regime change.’”

First, I don’t think that one can prove that US intervention is superior to anything, ever. It’s basically a broken window fallacy. And I don’t embrace any illiberal government. I just don’t think that it’s the US government’s job to overthrown them. Also, I don’t think any autocratic governments are primarily resisting imperialism.

“Realism is attractive for libertarians because the United States faces no major threats, and therefore does not need to balance either externally or internally.”

Realism in International Relations theory is in general attractive for me because it seems to reflect the reality. Among International Relations theorists, my personal favorites are John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. I believe they are very liberal (in the classical sense) at heart but, like me, they are very suspicious of states. By the way, I’m Brazilian and I don’t live in the States, so the second part makes no sense either. There are many libertarians outside the US, by the way, and I think it would be very interesting to check what they think about all this.

“Libertarians, for example, believe that regime change and nation building through the use of military force is unjust and more often than not doomed to failure.”

I don’t think that. The American Revolution and the Puritan Revolution were great examples of regime change and nation building through the use of military force. They worked just fine. I just don’t believe that we can force this on other people.

“But libertarians have also rejected other aspects of America’s post-World War II grand strategy—namely, America’s military alliances and the web of international political and economic institutions they underpin—that have served the causes of peace, free trade, and a more interdependent world. The result of this web of institutions has been a liberal international order that encourages peaceful, commercial relations between states that had previously been rivals. It helps ameliorate security competition and establishes expected patterns of behavior that encourage cooperation instead. This order has not been without its flaws and, as Nexon highlights in another post, serious reforms should be explored. But it has also helped underpin previously unseen levels of peace and prosperity. As Nexon writes, ‘we should not confuse two different questions: ‘which liberal order?’ and ‘whether liberal order?’’”

I’m not sure if “America’s post-World War II grand strategy have served the causes of peace, free trade, and a more interdependent world.” Again, it’s a matter of opportunity cost, or another broken window fallacy. I’m also unsure if “the result of this web of institutions has been a liberal international order that encourages peaceful, commercial relations between states that had previously been rivals.” I have a really strong tendency to say it didn’t. The problem with theorizing in social sciences is that, unlike in natural sciences, you can’t take things to the laboratory and run consecutive tests. That is, by the way, one of the reasons why I reject positivism as a research methodology. I’m not sure if Matthew Fay embraces it, but the fact is that for me we are better with praxeology, or at least some version of methodological individualism. And with that in mind, we can’t be so bold to say that American foreign policy in the post-WWII Era was the main cause of peace and everything else. It just seems to me that without US intervention in WWI there would be no WWII (and no Russian Revolution, at least not a successful one, by the way). The Founding Fathers were right: Europe is a mess. The farthest you get from it, the best.

Foreign Policy in the Liberal Tradition: The Real Story

Over at the Niskanen Center, Matthew Fay wrote a blog entitled “Thinking about Libertarian Foreign Policy.” Brandon was so nice to point this out to me.

Fay’s main point is that, apparently contrary to what some libertarians think (Fay leaves them unnamed, no references either), there is big divide between the foreign policy pronouncements of Donald Trump and libertarian views on foreign policy. So far, so good. I have no dispute with that.

Yet Fay’s blog post is seriously lacking at other points. The main one, and the focus of this post, is that he mixes up different views on international relations within the liberal tradition at large, which is in some way not so surprising because he appears to be ignorant of those differences to begin with (at least in this piece). That is not very comforting for those concerned with this issue, as the Niskanen Center is about to start a larger project on foreign policy. Should it indeed be born in neglect and oversight, it won’t add much to our knowledge, I am afraid.

Conceptual mess

Fay’s essay gets off to a false start as he fails to properly introduce “libertarian.” He then continues to use this label for all kinds of theoretical ideas, originating from both liberal political thought, and international relations theory. To make things worse, Fay routinely claims that there is one unified libertarian position on foreign policy.

This is erroneous, as classical liberalism, libertarianism, and social liberalism all have partly different views on the matter. The various thinkers associated with those different liberalisms have different views on domestic and international politics. Any meaningful analysis on foreign policy from a libertarian or other liberal position should acknowledge that, and use it to the reader’s advantage. It is impossible and perhaps even deceiving to enter into a topical debate when your own position is a conceptual mess. This applies to all debates, academic and otherwise.

Proper conceptual approach

So what should Fay have done instead? Simply acknowledge there is more to liberal thought on international relations, and work from there.

To keep this blog to a readable length, I will just present these differences very briefly. My presentation is based on the writings of the British political theorist Michael Freeden. He argues that every political ideology (and liberalism is one of them) should be seen as a framework (which he calls morphology) composed of a number of political concepts. These concepts vary in importance while their meaning is contested within the ideology. It is possible to distinguish core, adjacent, and peripheral concepts, which together make a unique set of political ideas. While some of the individual concepts overlap, there is significant variation between the frameworks. This enables the distinction between different liberal variants, which are still part of the larger liberal family.

For example, the concept of liberty is key to all liberal variants, but liberty has different meanings. Isaiah Berlin’s famous divide between positive and negative liberty is relevant here. The latter can be defined as ‘the freedom from interference by others’, the first ‘the freedom to fully enjoy one’s rights and liberties’, which often demands some support of the state. Classical liberalism is associated with the negative conception and social liberalism with the positive meaning. Yet the meaning of negative liberty may be further contested. The protection from interference by others may be taken as absolute, which is far more stringent than the classical liberal interpretation, which does allow for compulsory taxation of individuals to pay for public services. Now we are entering the libertarian domain, which is in itself divided into those who hold an absolute idea of negative liberty (the anarcho-capitalists), and those who permit a minimal infringement of property rights to pay for police, external defense, and the judiciary (the minarchists). This is also why conservatism is not as closely related to the liberal family as is sometimes thought. For conservatives, individual liberty is not a core concept at all.

Applied to liberalism and conservatism is comes to this:

Table 1: The Morphology of Liberalism and Conservatism

Classical Liberalism Social Liberalism Libertarianism Conservatism
Core concepts Negative freedom, realistic view of human nature, spontaneous order, limited state Positive freedom, positive view of human nature, social justice as self-development, extended state Negative freedom, realistic view of human nature, spontaneous order, natural law including strict defense of property rights Realistic view of human nature, organic change, human order with ‘extra-human’ origins, counter movement
Adjacent concepts Natural law, rule of law/constitutionalism Modern human rights, rule of law and neutral state, social contract (Mill: utilitarianism) Minarchism: minimal state, rule of law Groups/family, hierarchy, active state, sometimes: spontaneous order
Peripheral concepts Social justice, strict defense of property rights, democracy, utilitarianism Property rights, spontaneous order Social justice Individual (property) rights, freedom

Source: Edwin van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, 2015).

Liberalism and international relations

Interestingly, yet of course completely logical, these differences also translate to views on foreign policy and international relations:

Table 2: Liberalism, Conservatism, and International Relations

Classical liberalism Social liberalism Libertarianism Conservatism
Nation as limit of individual sympathy Yes No No Yes
State as prime actor in world politics Yes No No Yes
International governmental

institutions/regimes

No Yes No No
Can war be eliminated No Yes Yes No
Does trade foster peace? No Yes Yes No

Source: Edwin van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, 2015).

So, in contrast to Fay’s approach, it is not so simple to claim all kinds of concepts and ideas for just one liberal label. There is far more to it. I shall leave it at this for the moment, but for those wanting to read more about this, see my longer essay at libertarianism.org, or my books Degrees of Freedom and Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory.

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.