u Notes from the Underground: Why I don't dig libertarianism that much any more

Why I don't dig libertarianism that much any more

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Over the last 3 years, the strength of my belief in libertarianism has waned. I still am libertarian enough to have Hayekian moments every time I go to the grocery store, and I shed an internal tear of joy every time Bryan Caplan writes another blog post arguing for immigration reform. But still. I've found myself disagreeing more often with people and writers I once admired; I've given up reading Reason.com and Cafe Hayek and Amit Varma for the most part. This doesn't at all imply that I am fan of govt. regulation all of a sudden; that is a separate issue.

Here are bunch of reasons why this may have happened, in roughly increasing order of importance, I think.

1. Signaling (the cynic's explanation): As I come across more and more libertarians, may be the philosophy doesn't seem as exclusive as it did before, and I consequently derive less signaling benefit from holding such beliefs. In short, libertarianism is no longer cool.

2. Simple indifference to politics: I am less interested in politics and self-righteous debates than before; politics is the mind-killer.

3. Research funding: Given that for the last 3 years, I've been supported as a grad student by the U.S. govt., a principled stand against govt. spending is a bit hypocritical, no? In general, research on today's scale simply needs govt. funding; and while the many inefficiencies of current academia is a topic I'd love to talk about, I'll spare you for now 'cause that's a separate topic.

4. Foxes vs. hedgehogs: Philip Tetlock studied for 20 years the predictive accuracy of political experts and wrote a widely acclaimed book about it. Basically he found that experts who were skeptical of grand theories and used "local", ad-hoc models ("foxes") were generally more accurate forecasters than experts with overarching grand theories to explain all developments ("hedgehogs"). Now this doesn't carry over cleanly to policy debates, but it does suggest that attachment to simple, elegant theories in social science is not such a great idea. Among the major political ideologies libertarianism is probably the simplest and most elegant one, and all of a sudden this doesn't seem like praise. (May be this explains why engineers and geeks, with their training in math, are overrepresented amongst libertarians.)

5. Corporate social responsibility: I no longer accept the Friedmanite view of corporate social responsibility - that a company can do whatever it takes to maximise profit so long as it obeys the law. It was right and proper that De Beers be pressured to stop putting "blood diamonds" out on the global market, even though the company may not have technically been breaking any law. In general, companies will cut corners, lie, and indulge in all sorts of manipulative behaviour that even 6 year olds know are wrong. Turning a blind eye to all of this just because it's technically legal seems quite callous to me.

6. Defer to the experts: Frankly, no matter how intuitively appealing free market economics ("Econ 101") may feel, I should shut up, realize there's economics beyond Econ 101, and simply believe in whatever the average expert on any given topic believes. E.g. when Ron Paul comes along arguing for the gold standard - I don't even need to know the technical arguments as to why this is loony; all I need to know is that practically no reasonable economist thinks this is a good idea. This strategy is very sound as far as it goes, except that there are topics where it is non-trivial to figure out what the average expert believes in, and there are topics which are a combination of ethics and empirical knowledge (corporate social responsibility, the role of the govt. in protecting the environment, abortion etc.) and therefore there are no clear experts to defer to.

7. The recent financial crisis: Beware those who are not surprised by surprising seeming data; the scale of madness displayed by Wall Street in the subprime crisis can fail to surprise only if you are a investment banker yourself or you've made a thorough study of human irrationality. (Judge Posner surely deserves some credit for having the guts to revise his life-long beliefs, although I haven't read the book.) The main surprise is not even that investment bankers were greedy, but that they were *flat-out stupid*. Having their own careers, financial security and reputation at stake was not enough incentive for these people to act rationally. *That* is what scares me; greed is widely reviled, but greed has predictable consequences, one can turn greed around to society's advantage (which is how markets work when they do). On the other hand it is stupidity that has unpredictable consequences; there is no saying how things might turn out when you deal with mad men. The only philosophy that's survived this whole mess is Nicholas Taleb's, and his theories have nothing at all to do with libertarianism.

So there you go. Today's piece of tangentially related advice: it's a good strategy usually to hold off on proposing solutions until you have understood the problem at hand properly.


At 11:42 AM, September 08, 2009, Anonymous Rajat said...

3) But you are pumping back a lot of that dole into the economy in addition to putting research with potential value for the economy. This sounds more like a wise govt. investment than a payout.

Strongly agree with 5.

At 12:09 PM, September 08, 2009, Anonymous Ganja said...

I've always maintained that any political belief that can be classified under a ready label is not nearly sophisticated enough to survive outside of classroom/blogging debates. Really enjoyed reading this.

At 5:45 PM, September 08, 2009, Blogger Venu said...

@Rajat The govt. is spending that money specifically to promote research; if all it wanted to do was circulate that money back into the economy it could do it in many other ways.

@Ganja Thanks. What is surprising to me is that beliefs on different, not necessarily related issues should cluster - i.e. just by knowing what you believe about the environment, it is easy to predict what you believe about foreign policy. There is no rational reason why this should be the case, and yet this is suspiciously often the case with people. This makes me think that if all your beliefs fall under one label, then there is something missing.

At 12:25 AM, September 09, 2009, Blogger Chetan said...

You didn't mention anything about your support or lack of it for anarcho-capitalism. I thought for some time you were quite taken by that school of thought.

Anyways, I must say its been a little different for me, approaching, as I did, from the other end of the spectrum. I don't approach libertarian ideas with as much scepticism as I did earlier. Not that I don't fume when I read Amit or Cafe Hayek. In fact I pity them even more. But in Will Wilkinson I found someone willing to engage people like me and someone who share my moral bearings despite favoring a philosophy I still find discomfiting.

But as far as the coolness of libertarianism goes, I was never in thrall. In fact, intellectually I find it utterly boring because it gives you such a standard template without allowing too much tinkering that after a while you can write a program that will produce a 300 lines piece on any given subject by knowing certain input parameters.

At 1:28 AM, September 09, 2009, Blogger Venu said...

Regarding anarcho-capitalism, heh. It's fun to fantasize about privatizing the police and courts off; may be in some future world such institutions will be possible, but for now it's pure fantasy. It's obvious to me now, but it wasn't then. (Some of David Friedman's writings on tangentially related topics are still brilliant.)

I stopped reading Will Wilkinson too; I think after a point I decided I wasn't learning anything new.


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