Tag: libertarians

The Art of Persuasion

The newest posting at Libertarianism.org is a 1979 speech by Nathaniel Branden, from the largest-ever convention of the Libertarian Party, titled “What Happens When the Libertarian Movement Begins to Succeed?” Alas, it’s audio-only, unlike all the classic videos at Libertarianism.org. But it’s still vintage Branden, and quite interesting. The site’s multimedia editor, Evan Banks, drew my attention to this part of the speech (starting around 22:22) that I think has a lot of relevance to the work we do at Cato and the attempts at persuasion by libertarians generally:

So it becomes very interesting to ask ourselves – and obviously I don’t wish to imply this applies to all of us, it doesn’t – but these are trends to watch for in ourselves and in our colleagues. So it becomes interesting to ask ourselves: Okay, suppose that I or my friends or my colleagues, while genuinely believing in these ideals, at the same time have this unrecognized negative self-concept of which Branden speaks. That means that my self-sabotaging behavior wouldn’t happen on a conscious level, but it would happen. How would it happen? What kinds of mistakes might we make?
 
Well, for example, suppose that you’re talking with people that don’t already share your views, and yet you believe your views have evidence and reason to support them. Now, if you really believe that you’re in this to win; to see your ideas prevail, then you give a lot of thought to how to become a good communicator, how to reach human minds, how to appeal to human intelligence. What do you do if you’re really in it to keep proving that you’re a heroic–but doomed–martyr? What do you do if your deepest belief [about people that don’t already share your views] is, “You’re never going to get it. You’re hopelessly corrupt. I may be one of the two or three last moral people on Earth. What am I doing at this party anyway?”
[laughter]
 
You engage in a lot of flaming rhetoric – you talk about statists, you talk about looters, you talk about parasites in contexts where you KNOW this language is Greek to your listener. Why should you care, your dialogue isn’t directed to him anyway – it’s directed to the spectator – you watching you being a hero. HE knows what you mean – don’t get confused over the fact that your listeners don’t, the show isn’t for them anyway.

Libertarian Vote Ebook Shows Libertarian Growth

Our new ebook, The Libertarian Vote: Swing Voters, Tea Parties, and the Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal Center, is No. 1 on Amazon’s Practical Politics bestseller list (at least as of post time.) Get your own Kindle version at Amazon or a variety of formats (.epub, .mobi, and .pdf) at the Cato store.

Last year Nate Silver of the New York Times wrote about rising libertarian trends on two questions regularly asked in CNN and Gallup polls:

Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country’s problems. Which comes closer to your own view?

Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?

I was especially interested since those are two of the questions that David Kirby and I regularly use in our studies of “the libertarian vote.” CNN asked the questions again in 2012, and the combined libertarian support rose again. Here’s a graphic depiction of those poll results, from Cato’s Jon Meyers, which you can also find in our new ebook, The Libertarian Vote.

Buy it now! Find all our studies, plus lots more colorful graphs.

Robert Nozick and the Value of Liberty

Stephen Metcalf’s prolix takedown of Robert Nozick demands response, not because Metcalf has advanced a novel and Rawls-esque so-interesting-and-powerful-it-must-be-addressed argument, but because he precisely has not. Nozick is, justifiably, a hero of libertarianism (and liberty), and his terrific book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, as well as libertarianism in general, deserve better than Metcalf’s excoriation.

My colleague Jason Kuznicki started things off admirably. At the risk of beating what ought to be a dead horse, I’d like to add a word or two of my own. I’ll avoid what Jason’s already covered.

Let’s start with Metcalf’s very odd characterization of Nozick’s view of liberty as the primary value. He writes, “Nozick is arguing that liberty is the sole value, and to put forward any other value is to submit individuals to coercion.” Metcalf adds that, according to Nozick and modern libertarians, “Every other value, meanwhile, represents someone else’s deranged will-to-power.”

This claim evinces a common confusion about libertarianism, one that continues throughout the remainder of Metcalf’s article: libertarians don’t believe that liberty is the primary value, we believe that liberty is the primary political value. Like so many critics of libertarianism, Metcalf does not understand the scope of the libertarian argument.

I value liberty, yes, but I also value my health, my daughter’s happiness, and films staring William Powell and Myrna Loy. In fact, libertarians, progressives, and even Robert Nozick value quite a lot of things. The libertarian argument is simply that a state that attempts to directly maximize any value besides liberty—by, say, coercively taxing in order to pay for more Thin Man films—violates individual rights. What’s more, if the state does remain limited to protecting only liberty, we’ll get more health, happiness, and great movies.

According to Nozick and most other libertarians, it is for the protection of liberty that we organize a state—and a state that violates its citizens’ liberty (beyond, arguably, certain “night watchman” duties) commits a moral wrong. Metcalf gets that much right. But this is not because liberty is the only value. Rather, it is because liberty is the only value the state should concern itself with. All the other values—of which there are a great many, not all shared equally by all individuals—are the exclusive concern of civil society.

Nozick argues that it’s wrong for all of us to look in moral horror at Wilt Chamberlain’s earnings, band together into a government, and send in armed tax collectors because we think Wilt’s money could be more valuably used somewhere other than Wilt’s pockets. Nozick’s parable is about the morality of politics while saying nothing about what Wilt ought to voluntarily do with his money. He might choose to spend it all on caviar and rare basketball cards, in which case the rest of us might even be justified in looking down our noses at such “wasteful” behavior. But Wilt might also give a portion of his money to fund homeless shelters, free medical clinics, and scholarships for poor children (as many people in his position in fact do). Or he might use it to launch a new business, employing many of his fellow citizens at decent wages to teach his basketball skills to willing consumers.

Liberty is not the only value. It is the only value within the scope of politics. Liberty is also the value that allows all the other actually-held values to flourish.

Which brings me to this odd bit of Metcalf’s reasoning: “Even in 1975,” he writes, “it took a pretty narrow view of history to think all capital is human capital, and that philosophy professors, even the especially bright ones, would thrive in the free market.” Doesn’t Nozick recognize, he asks, that the very university system he took advantage of to pay his bills while writing his defense of free markets was made possible only by massive government transfer payments? Without a hugely interventionist state, Nozick wouldn’t even be able to pay his rent with his philosophy knowledge, let alone revitalize an intellectual movement.

In effect, Metcalf is saying that Nozick is dumb to support markets because markets wouldn’t support Nozick. If liberty is the only value (of the state), then the talent of philosophy wouldn’t be sufficiently valued (by the market) to allow a fellow like Robert Nozick to do philosophy.

And Metcalf may be right. But if he is, it’s unclear why we shouldn’t also extend his argument to all other talents. A great many mystery novelists, for instance, would love to have academic appointments while they pen new adventures for their detectives. But instead they have to compete in the free market, hoping an audience will value their work enough to pay for it. Last I checked, even in this unforgiving environment, there are a great many mystery novels on shelves.

The fact of the matter is that not all talents are valued, which is why Nozick chose a basketball player to build his case around instead of, say, a teenager who can name every Pokémon from memory. If we are going to create a world in which everything valuable (to Metcalf) is given financial support, we need to organize it such that people are not free to choose their own values. The beauty of the free market is not that it specifically supports basketball playing or philosophy writing, but that it rewards those who have talents that are actually and voluntarily valued by the rest of us. Arriving at an array of values this way seems a good deal better than the alternative, at least. For if we aren’t to leave “value” to the market, we have to leave it to someone. Which means substituting that person’s (or committee’s) particular, uniform conception of value for the variegated bramble that is a free society.

The beauty of liberty is that it allows each of us to pursue our own ends and strive for whatever we value. The curse of liberty is that our striving takes place among a great many fellow strivers, many of who are headed in directions we find elitist or prole, dangerous or dull, distasteful or uninspired. The difference between Nozick’s vision and Metcalf’s is that Nozick embraces that wonderful chaos, provided it happens within a framework of respected rights. Metcalf would strike down choice and replace it with state-endorsed value. He would force all of us or none of us to watch Wilt play, placing the decision to be a spectator or an abstainer not with free individuals but with Stephen Metcalf.

Capitalist Acts between Consenting Adults

Even Robert Nozick gave up on libertarianism,” says Stephen Metcalf, more or less. “So what’s wrong with you?” (Aside, of course, from the fact that Nozick didn’t give up.)

I probably should hesitate before declaring my allegiance to the evil league of evil. But you’re reading this at the Cato Institute, so it may be too late for that. Metcalf’s piece falls into a large and (sadly) growing category for me, one labeled “People Condemning Libertarians for Strange Things That Never Occurred to Anyone, Let Alone to Us.”

It never occurred to me, for example, that by citing Wilt Chamberlain as someone who became wealthy in a morally blameless way, Robert Nozick was playing the race card. Metcalf writes:

“Wilt Chamberlain” is an African-American whose talents are unique, scarce, perspicuous (points, rebounds, assists), and in high demand. We feel powerfully the man should be paid, and not to do so—to expect a black athlete to perform for (largely) white audiences without adequate compensation—raises the specter of the plantation.

Raises the specter of the plantation? Does it now? Let’s generalize: Your forcing anyone to perform without what they consider adequate compensation should raise that same specter. If someone is going to perform for you, they must do it for a wage that they consider adequate, whether their “performance” is a show of basketball prowess or just working on an assembly line.

If they don’t like the wage, they should be free to seek a better one. If the employers pay a giant wage, and if they do so because they really, really like the work, then that’s also their right.

Those who want to interfere – to tax wages, to restrict entry or exit, or to prohibit whole lines of work – they are the ones who bear the burden of proof. Not the willing buyers and sellers of labor. That’s what Wilt Chamberlain’s example is supposed to show.

Maybe you’re not ready to go whole-hog and declare that taxation is theft. Eh, fine. Still, taxation should make all of us pretty uncomfortable, especially when we look at its philosophical implications. The arguments that justify taxation might actually be unavoidable—truthfully, I wouldn’t know how to run a government without them—but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous.

Of the many errors in a long and error-ridden article, I think the worst has to be the idea that libertarians hold all concentrations of wealth to be good. As long, I infer, as we gather it in sufficiently large heaps. Metcalf writes:

But being a star athlete isn’t the only way to make money. In addition to earning a wage, one can garnish a wage, collect a fee, levy a toll, cash in a dividend, take a kickback, collect a monopoly rent, hit the superfecta, inherit Tara, insider trade, or stumble on Texas tea. For each way of conceiving wealth, there is at least one way of moralizing its distribution. The Wilt Chamberlain example is designed to corner us—quite cynically, in my view—into moralizing all of them as if they were recompense for a unique talent that gives pleasure; and to tax each of them, and regulate each of them, according to the same principle of radical noninterference suggested by a black ballplayer finally getting his due.

This is simply wrong. For a libertarian, it’s only Wilt Chamberlain’s particular type of wealth that is morally blameless, not all the rest. Which kind is his? The kind acquired through voluntary transactions, without coercion or fraud. The kind that comes from Nozick called capitalist acts between consenting adults.

Some wealth is blameless. Some isn’t. And yes, some cases are truly hard to judge: Is Wal-Mart a free-market success story? Wellll…. kind of. But what about all those special tax privileges? What about that eminent domain abuse?

Wilt Chamberlain makes a good example not because he’s a black man struggling sympathetically in a white man’s world. His example is useful because it strips away every possibility of force, fraud, corporate welfare, and government favoritism. When we do that, we can see that it’s still possible to grow wealthy through honest, voluntary methods. That’s a valuable insight, even if you don’t necessarily agree with everything else Robert Nozick ever wrote. (Don’t sweat it; I don’t either.)

Finally, Metcalf strangely neglects Chamberlain’s fans. When we talk about Wilt Chamberlain’s right to collect a paycheck, it’s partly because he’s highly visible. But we should not forget that when we take away that paycheck, we also take away an entertainment choice for millions of ordinary people.

If we remove enough choices like these, we won’t merely have made life less cushy for the talented. We’ll also have made it a lot poorer for the rest of us. We could be taking away not just basketball, but breakthroughs in science, technology, and the arts. And why? Because someone found someone else’s voluntary transfer of wealth distasteful. That shouldn’t be much of a reason.

Communitarians and Libertarians

Communitarian “guru” Amitai Etzioni debated Roger Pilon at Cato two weeks ago. Also me, 18 years ago. And last week he had two postings at the Encyclopedia Britannica blog. I offer some thoughts on individualism, communitarianism, and implausible misrepresentations of libertarianism at the Britannica today.

When I hear communitarians like Etzioni describe the libertarian view of individualism, I wonder if they’ve ever read any libertarian writing other than a Classic Comics edition of Ayn Rand….

There’s no conflict between individualism and community. There’s a conflict between voluntary association and coerced association. And communitarians dance around that conflict.

Do you believe that “The libertarian perspective, put succinctly, begins with the assumption that individual agents are fully formed and their value preferences are in place prior to and outside of any society”? Of course not. Who would? Read the Britannica column to find out who says you do.

Journalism and Generality

The media makes it hard for ordinary people to be libertarians. In large part, this is because journalism is in the business of selling panic—panic about terrorism, panic about drugs, panic about food, panic about pornography, panic about our health care system. If it’s not an emergency, it’s not news. To the lazy journalist, everything becomes an emergency—and emergencies always—always—demand state action.

The media makes things hard for the would-be libertarian in other ways, too. Consider this story from today’s Washington Post, about… well, it’s hard to say, actually:

Senate Democrats unveiled a plan Tuesday to save $21 billion over the next decade by eliminating tax breaks for the nation’s five biggest oil companies, a move designed to counter Republican demands to control the soaring national debt without new taxes.

With the proposal, Democrats sought to reframe the debate over debt reduction to include fresh revenue as well as sharp cuts in spending. For the first time, Democratic leaders suggested an equal split between spending cuts and new taxes — “50-50,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).

That represents a larger share for taxes than has been proposed by either President Obama or the bipartisan commission he appointed to recommend how to cut the national debt.

So far, the Democratic tax agenda is focused on ending subsidies for big oil companies, a hugely popular proposal involving what Democrats see as a prime example of wasteful giveaways in the tax code. By raising the issue, Democrats are trying to force Republicans either to drop their rigid stance against new taxes or to defend taxpayer subsidies for some of the world’s most profitable corporations, including Ex­xon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips.

The proposal came in response to remarks Tuesday by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who said raising taxes is “off the table.” A day earlier, he gave a speech demanding more than $2 trillion in spending cuts in exchange for GOP support for an increase in the legal limit on government borrowing through the end of next year.

Where am I confused, you ask? On almost everything a libertarian ought to care about. I’ll explain.

One of the key aspects of any good law is generality—that is, equality before the law. As F. A. Hayek put it:

[T]hough government has to administer means which have been put at its disposal (including the services of all those whom it has hired to carry out its instructions), this does not mean that it should similarly administer the efforts of private citizens. What distinguishes a free from an unfree society is that in the former each individual has a recognized private sphere clearly distinct from the public sphere, and the private individual cannot be ordered about but is expected to obey only the rules which are equally applicable to all….

The general, abstract rules, which are laws in the substantive sense, are… essentially long-term measures, referring to yet unnkown cases and containing no references to particular persons, places, or objects. Such laws must always be prospective, never retrospective, in their effect (The Constitution of Liberty, chapter 14, section 2).

Now, with every passing day our government stomps all over this generality requirement again and again, chiefly in the economic sphere. But is it doing so on the front page of today’s Washington Post? That’s a good question.

I can think of lots of ways we might deny a tax break to a certain five oil corporations. Some are decidedly better than others in their generality. Consider the following, ranked from least general to most:

  1. “The corporations known as Ex­xon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips are hereby denied tax break X. All others still qualify, or not, as they did before.”
  2. “Oil corporations with an annual revenue above $198 billion are denied tax break X.”
  3. “We find that tax break X itself is lacking in generality. It is hereby repealed, and the overall corporate tax rate is increased accordingly.”

Which one are they proposing? From the story’s first paragraph, we could easily conclude that it was (1). Many people on the left would be happy with (1), because big corporations are anathema to them, and everything they do is evil, and punishing them—generality be damned—is just great.

But then, it could also be (2), and this measure is somewhat more general, even if ConocoPhillips—the smallest company on the list—just so happens to have an annual revenue of $198.655 billion. As Hayek noted, “[C]lassification in abstract terms can always be carried to the point at which, in fact, the class singled out consists only of particular known persons or even a single individual” (ibid., section 4). Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

And finally, there’s (3), clearly the winner in terms of generality. Is that in fact the proposal being discussed by members of Congress? Or is it still more general than that—something perhaps as described by my colleagues Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren earlier this month?

Last week President Barack Obama responded to rising public anger over soaring gasoline prices by banging the drums for the elimination of various tax breaks enjoyed by the oil and gas industry…

[L]et the record show that President Obama is right… about these tax breaks. They make the economy less — not more — efficient and do nothing to reduce prices at the pump.

Rigging the tax code to make investments in manufacturing artificially more attractive than investments in something else is an enterprise designed to harm non-manufacturers for the benefit of … manufacturers. Conservatives who want government to leave markets alone have no business throwing their political bodies in front of this tax break. If their political rhetoric means anything, they would see the president’s bid and raise him by calling for total repeal of this tax break for everyone, not just for oil and gas companies.

If only we were so lucky! Getting back to the Post, we learn much later in the story—in the fifteenth paragraph —that the congressional proposal “would close several long-standing tax loopholes, yielding roughly $2 billion a year in savings to be applied to lowering the deficit. It would affect only the five largest oil companies, excluding smaller producers.”

This is confusing to the point of deception. Does it really “close” a loophole to take a few entities and exclude them from the prior exclusion from the tax? By my understanding, it makes the law less general, more convoluted and more arbitrary, than it was before. Close the loophole—or just don’t close it, I think a Hayek might say. Don’t make companies play human Tetris to figure out whether they aren’t not un-disincluded.

One day I think people will look back on our era—from roughly the civil rights movement to the present—and marvel. They will be amazed at how, while the law grew much more general regarding many non-economic matters, it became increasingly partial and favoritist when it came to running a business. At times our journalism and even our language seemed blind to this contradictory development, which only encouraged it. Even thinking about the generality of our laws is made difficult when it’s just not a topic on the national media’s radar.

But equality before the law should apply, well, equally. Shouldn’t it?

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