A Hard-Line Libertarian in a Classical Liberal’s Clothes

Yesterday, Richard Epstein published an article entitled with a tagline that read “why classical liberalism is superior to hard-core libertarianism.” The thrust of the article is more or less as follows.

The renewed attention to Paul exposes the critical tension between hard-line libertarians and classical liberals. The latter are comfortable with a larger government than hard-core libertarians because they take into account three issues that libertarians like Paul tend to downplay: (1) coordination problems; (2) uncertainty; (3) and matters of institutional design.

I don’t want to summarize Epstein at length here, and would encourage anyone interested in questions of libertarianism, classical liberalism, and their relative merits to check out Epstein’s article for themselves. I want to stress that it’s far more nuanced than the brief excerpt I’ve posted here makes it seem, and I think most members of either camp would find it to be fair and enjoyable to mull over.

One criticism I would make is that Epstein, perhaps for reasons of space and brevity, can seem to be begging the question at certain points. He argues that hard-line libertarians misfire by considering voluntary contracts sufficient for ensuring social order, says that classic liberals “recognize the need for taxation to support institutions of social order,” and also “realize” and “recognize” a host of other things as well. This makes it sound as though those of the more hard-line philosophy simply haven’t encountered these issues when, as Epstein himself implicitly admits in writing the piece in the first place, the big distinction between classical liberals and hard-line libertarians is the relative emphases they place on these problems, and the approaches they take to solving them.

When Epstein writes, for instance, that classical liberals “recognize” the need for taxation he is using a rhetorical flourish that implies that this need really does exist, and thereby lends credence to his assertion that the classical liberals are superior for being able to see it when hard-line libertarians cannot. But it’s not that hard-line libertarians can’t see it; it’s that they fundamentally dispute that such a need exists. They have considered and examined it, and have come to the conclusion that it is a falsehood. They may be right or wrong about that, but it seems a little unfair for Epstein to suggest that those who argue that taxation is necessary are right, simply because…taxation is necessary. It’s like telling an atheist that we can be certain that God exists because it says so in the Bible.

Again, I’m sure that Epstein has long considered these questions, and can offer nuanced and thoughtful answers as to why taxation might actually be necessary. Likely he omitted these for reasons of space, and because many readers are already familiar with them.

Anyway, the point of this post is not to quibble with Epstein over how he presents hard-line libertarianism. The point that I’m actually interested in making is that, rather than a strict dichotomy between classical liberalism and hard-line libertarianism, I think there is room for a position that flexes between the former and the latter depending on if we’re discussing the real world or the ideal world.

Let’s start with ideals. It’s interesting to note at this point that Jonathan Haidt says self-described libertarians tend to be more concerned with being “consistent” in their policy recommendations than either conservatives or liberals. (One does wonder where Epstein style classical liberals would fall within those three categories–I’m not sure). Either way, this seems to ring true to me. Speaking purely anecdotally, it seems to be the case that libertarians, both in informal conversation as well as in formal argumentation, place a large emphasis on pointing out inconsistencies in the positions their opponents holds.

Haidt has written a completely separate scholarly article analyzing the “ Psychological Dispositions of Self-Described Libertarians .” While one can quibble with such things, his findings seem largely persuasive to me. In that article, Haidt applies the same tools to self-described libertarians and concludes that there are distinct psychological correlates to to libertarian morality that distinguished libertarians from both liberals and conservatives. Perhaps most striking is the libertarians emphasis on systematization. Now this, I think, is an important insight. For it explains a point that seems to be highly distinctive to libertarians: the recognition by libertarians, often with a high degree of pride, that libertarianism offers the only “consistent” ideology and that is one of the most compelling aspects of it. Well here’s Haidt’s point: Most people simply do not care whether their ideological views are consistent . For most people (liberals and conservatives), consistency is simply not a relevant variable or axis for determining what you believe or your ideological worldview. This explains, I think, the frequent bewilderment that libertarians face when they try to persuade someone to change their mind about, say, a social policy because it is “inconsistent” with their economic policy beliefs. It simply is not a relevant argument to them. This has obvious implications for communicating libertarian ideas to non-libertarians (i.e., the overwhelming number of people in America!).

That comes from a great post over at the Volokh Conspiracy, summarizing some of the work Haidt has done in this area. My point is that if libertarians are generally concerned with pursuing a “consistent” stance across different policy recommendations, or at least are more concerned about this than their less libertarian counterparts might be, then it probably shouldn’t come as surprise that more of them bite the bullet and commit fully to their views against taxation and violence. That’s not necessarily to conclude that they are correct in doing so–perhaps they are wrong about taxation and violence, and perhaps certain forms of them can be complementary to and even necessary for a free society. But it’s not surprising that a philosophy that attracts people who emphasize consistency sees many of its adherents advocate for the purist’s hard-line application of their viewpoints.

Now, there’s a difference between viewing all taxation as theft, and viewing all taxation as theft while also rejecting any reforms to it short of its total abolition. I really can’t speak from anything other than speculation on this point but it seems clear to me that, although many libertarians probably oppose almost all taxation from a philosophical point of view, they also recognize how limited they are as a segment of the population in general. As a result, I’d guess that many libertarians treat hypothetical situations encountered in their college philosophy class differently than they would treat an actual policy debate with the potential to influence real outcomes. Most libertarians probably oppose the income tax, in other words, but I think many would concede some small level of taxation–a flat tax is sometimes proposed, but that’s just one example–in exchange for a lessening of the overall burden. Those who are seriously involved in any policy debate realize quickly that the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

(In fact, my own thinking on this has been shaped by a growing interest in health policy and economics. It is easy to suggest that markets represent an obvious solution to health care woes but the fact of the matter is that we are a long way from markets, and many of our fellow citizens are heavily opposed to them. Short of absolute collapse and a market-friendly rebuilding, progress along these lines will likely proceed at a snail’s pace, so it’s important to be open-minded and willing to work with those of different viewpoints.)

And this brings me, finally, to my overall point. As I read and enjoyed Epstein’s piece on why he feels classical liberalism is superior to hard-line libertarianism, all I could think about is that hard-line libertarians tend to leave the house in a classical liberal’s clothes. By that I mean that hard-line libertarians may be characterized by their strict adherence to a clearly defined set of principles, but recognition that they are few and far between can lead them to argue, debate, and push policy proposals as though they are traditional classical liberals. Obviously this is a gross generalization, but I don’t think it’s a wildly inaccurate point of view.

Another way of observing this, as perhaps a hard-line libertarian yourself, is noticing how often you respond to questions for your policy ideas as follows: “Well, ideally, we’d do 1, 2, and 3, but given this constraint and that consideration, we could at least do A, B, and C.”

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