What is libertarianism?
Tyler Cowen challenged progressives to come up with an intelligent defence of libertarianism. While I might not be considered especially progressive by European standards, I probably am on the American spectrum. I thought that a view from a European might be interesting given that he makes several comparisons between the two continents in his list.
Incidentally, I think his list is not a bad summary of the progressive position, though I'd disagree with 3 and the second part of 8. Maybe those points are where I am revealing my libertarian bits.
Here's my attempt to return the favour:
- As a matter of principle, freedom is both a good in itself and a bulwark against damaging authoritarianism.
- In general, each individual knows more than anyone else about their own interests and the context they live in, and by making their own choices they are best able to maximise those interests. Indeed, the only way we can get any genuine insight into someone else’s interests is by observing the choices they make. For these two reasons, our principle should be to allow everyone to make their own decisions wherever possible.
- There are circumstances where this leads to problems - externalities, collective action problems or asymmetric information. If we choose to correct these, we should do so with narrowly targeted solutions that fix only the problem itself and do not spill over.
- Arguments about the differing utility of wealth between rich and poor people can never be proven, because there is no way to compare interpersonal utility; we can only compare intrapersonal utility by looking at the choices individuals make.
- There are discrepancies in the power and resources available to different members of society, but these are mostly the result of individual choices freely taken, and should not be corrected by the majority force of those who regret their own past choices.
- If a person bears a high proportion of the costs and benefits of their actions, they have a powerful incentive to maximise the benefits. This implies that greater individual freedom will lead to higher total welfare (expressed, for instance, as economic growth) in a society.
- Because we live in a shared world, some actions freely taken can impose costs on other people. Limiting these costs, or allowing them to be compensated, is the main justification for restricting complete freedom of action.
- Empirically, societies which implement principles 6 and 7 have borne out their predictions with high levels of economic growth.
- We should support free trade and more immigration. Foreign aid should have exactly the same status as redistribution within a country; this may create challenges in achieving political support, but libertarianism is about principle, not pragmatism.
- Collective action in general involves agency problems, so we need to carefully restrict the power of those agencies (governments) which individuals cannot opt out of. Collectively enforced power should be executed at the lowest possible level so that decision making is better informed, and so that there are exit options for those who lose out from collective decisions.
- The libertarian strand in American history is deeply ingrained and shared by most citizens. Even if Europeans have chosen greater collectivity, what works in their culture will not work in the United States.
It's a good challenge and helped to convince me that writing from a less partisan point of view is much more intellectually stimulating than doggedly defending your corner, even if it generates less traffic.
Update: Matt Yglesias has a go too. And there's an interesting (if occasionally extreme) debate in the comments of Tyler's post. The comments on Matt's come much more from one side of the spectrum, which seems rather to miss the point of the exercise. Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments on my own post.