Topic: Political Philosophy

“Charity Is in Its Nature Essentially Civilizing”: In Defense of Herbert Spencer

Ian Millhiser has responded to both my defense of Herbert Spencer and one from Reason’s Damon Root. Unwavering in his belief that Spencer was a monster, Millhiser has doubled down on his claim that Spencer advanced a kind of “genocidal libertarianism.” Millhiser has rightly retreated, however, from boldly claiming, without evidence, that Rand Paul is a fan of Herbert Spencer. I thank him for his response, and I offer a few more thoughts on Spencer here.

First, it’s clear that Millhiser is an active and vehement opponent of libertarianism. He seems to believe–although I don’t want to put words in his mouth–that libertarianism is inherently “genocidal,” regardless of whether it’s advocated by Spencer, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, or Milton Friedman. So, on one level, Millhiser’s reaction to Spencer is simply a reiteration of his distaste for libertarianism and, insofar as that is the source of Millhiser’s discontent, I’m not going to try to argue with him that libertarianism isn’t inherently a cold, heartless philosophy. The possibility of that debate being productive is long passed.

But is there something particularly odious about Spencer’s brand of libertarianism, as Millhiser seems to think? Spencer writes with the peculiar verve of a 19th-century British intellectual, coming from the same milieu as anthropologists who would blithely discuss the “savage and uncivilized mongoloid and negroid races.” Similarly, Spencer would insouciantly attack the lazy, shiftless, and incompetent.

Post-modern relativism makes us balk at these absolute terms. In modern politics we tend to think more about the conditions into which people are born rather than their personal responsibility. Discussions of the “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor” are now largely uncouth.

But to Spencer, as to most 19th-century political and social theorists, the distinction mattered. Like many modern libertarians and conservatives, Spencer was very concerned that profligate and indiscriminate assistance for the poor would incentivize bad behavior. Although many on the left loathe the idea that welfare can create bad behavior, most people understand that concern. To anyone who’s ever had to cut off ne’er-do-well friends or family from further charity in order to help them out, those concerns make sense.

Big Governments Are Vastly More Dangerous to the Citizenry than Big Corporations

It’s hard to prove or disprove statements of broad social sweep, but we do know one thing: Nicholas Nassim Taleb will not defend his assertion that big corporations are “vastly more dangerous” than big governments.

With notable frequency, people assume that I’m a reader of Taleb’s books. Evidently my thinking and his align in important ways. It’s made me mildly interested in reading him, though time constraints (or time mismanagement) have not yet allowed it.

My minor affinity with Taleb caused me to focus just a little more than I otherwise would have on a tweet of his the other day.

That premise really caught my eye. What is the relative danger posed by governments and corporations? Are corporations “vastly more dangerous”?

I’d thought that the jury was pretty much in on that question. With hundreds of millions killed outright by government action in the 20th century alone, the quantum of death and destruction wrought by governments is almost certainly greater than corporations’ destructive work.

Like any tool, corporations are dangerous. Death and injury is a byproduct of their delivery of food, shelter, transportation, entertainment, and every other want and need of consumers, because they often miscalculate risk or just make stupid mistakes.

Public Opinion Data Finds the “Missing” Libertarians and Communitarians in America

In light of “libertarianish” Sen. Rand Paul’s recently announced candidacy for president, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman veered into public opinion to make a bold claim that most Americans are either liberal or conservative and little else.

He explains that in theory there could be more than simply liberals and conservatives. For instance, if political attitudes were structured along multiple dimensions like along economics and social issues, that would produce at least four different ideological groups:

  • Liberals (economically and socially liberal)
  • Conservatives (economically and socially conservative)
  • Libertarians (socially liberal and economically conservative)
  • “Hard hats” or communitarians (socially conservative and economically liberal)

Yet, without referencing data, he asserts that in practice few people exist in the libertarian or “hard hat” (or communitarian) boxes. His graphic is pasted below:

Is Krugman’s estimate accurate? A growing body of literature overwhelmingly suggests that it isn’t. (For instance see here, here, here, here, here, also see here, among others.)

For this reason, it’s not surprising that statisticians and academics used survey data in response to Krugman to demonstrate that Americans are more complicated than just red and blue. For instance, Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight cross-tabs support for wealth redistribution and same-sex marriage to show about a quarter of Americans fit in the libertarian box: oppose income redistribution and support marriage equality.

However, one could argue that by this definition, based on only these two questions, Paul (who indirectly instigated this debate) may not even be categorized in the “libertarian” box.

Perhaps a more precise way to measure this is to use multiple issue questions to derive a measure of each person’s ideology on economic issues, and multiple questions to estimate their ideology on social issues, and then use their scores as coordinates to map them across the four quadrants.

Figure 1 uses survey data from the American National Election Study Evaluations of Government and Society Survey 2 (EGSS 2). I average responses to several questions about economics to create an “economic issues scale” scaled from liberal to conservative. Similarly, I use questions about immigration and religion for a “social issues scale” scaled from liberal to conservative. (All question wording is found in the footnotes below.) Thus, each respondent is assigned an “economics” and “social” ideology score used to map their ideological coordinates and placement in one of the four boxes.

Figure 1 reveals a complicated electorate with 19 percent in the libertarian bucket (economically conservative and socially liberal) and 20 percent in the “hard hat” box (economically liberal and social conservative). This is a far cry from Krugman’s estimate of “basically empty” boxes.

Where Do The People Live, Politically Speaking?

Figure 1

Note: ANES 2012 EGSS 2, each dot represents an individual respondent. The Social Issues Scale is coded left to right, liberal to conservative. The Economics Issue Scale is coded bottom to top, liberal to conservative.

More on Krugman’s Missing Libertarians

I wrote last week about Paul Krugman’s claim that “there basically aren’t any libertarians” because “There ought in principle, you might think, be people who are pro-gay-marriage and civil rights in general, but opposed to government retirement and health care programs — that is, libertarians — but there are actually very few.” I offered some evidence from Gallup, Pew, and other polls that in fact there are substantial numbers of voters who hold libertarian-ish views on both economic and social issues.

Bryan Caplan runs some regressions to find that voters’ positions on a variety of issues don’t line up the way Krugman assumes they do. Ilya Somin explores various problems with Krugman’s claims, including this:

It’s also possible to try to justify Krugman’s claim by arguing that most of those people who hold seemingly libertarian views haven’t thought carefully about their implications and are not completely consistent in their beliefs. This is likely true. But it is also true of most conservatives and liberals. Political ignorance and irrationality are very common across the political spectrum and only a small minority of voters think carefully about their views and make a systematic attempt at consistency. Libertarian-leaning voters are not an exception to this trend. But it is worth noting that, controlling for other variables, increasing political knowledge tends to make people more libertarian in their views than they would be otherwise.

Nate Silver, Krugman’s erstwhile New York Times colleague who now runs the FiveThirtyEight website, writes, “There are few libertarians. But many Americans have libertarian views.” He notes:

If Krugman is right, you should see few Americans who are in favor of same-sex marriage but oppose government efforts to reduce income inequality, or vice versa.

As it turns out, however, there are quite a number of them; about 4 in 10 Americans have “inconsistent” views on these issues.

Not actually inconsistent, of course, just not consistently “liberal” or “conservative.” Those “inconsistent” Americans just might be consistently libertarian or anti-libertarian. Silver has a nice matrix, grounded in data from the General Social Survey unlike Krugman’s off-the-cuff matrix:

Nate Silver 2015 chart on libertarian voters

On those two issues, the largest group take liberal positions on both. Substitute different issues – cutting taxes, say, or internet censorship – and you’d get larger numbers of libertarians. But whatever set of issues you choose, you’re likely going to find significant numbers of voters taking positions that don’t fit into Krugman’s two boxes.

Silver speculates on why there seems to be so little political representation for these large groups of voters:

…the hard-core partisans who vote in presidential primaries are much more likely to take consistently liberal or conservative positions than the broader American population, as Krugman’s colleague Nate Cohn points out.

And the parties themselves — who have disproportionate influence in the primaries — have highly partisan views by definition. Almost all voting in the U.S. Congress, on social issues and economic issues alike, can be reduced to a single, left-right dimension.

Does this make any sense? Why should views on (for example) gay marriage, taxation, and U.S. policy toward Iran have much of anything to do with one another? The answer is that it suits the Democratic Party and Republican Party’s mutual best interest to articulate clear and opposing positions on these issues and to present their platforms as being intellectually coherent. The two-party system can come under threat (as it potentially now is in the United Kingdom) when views on important issues cut across party lines.

Maybe that’s why we have so much trouble convincing people that there are libertarian voters.

Nate Silver looked at growing libertarian sentiment back in 2011.

Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?

In a hit piece on Rand Paul posted on ThinkProgress, Ian Millhiser has taken guilt by association to new heights, and, in the process, fundamentally misrepresented the views of Herbert Spencer.

In “Rand Paul’s Favorite Philosophers Think Poor People Are ‘Parasites,’” Millhiser attempts to connect Rand Paul to 19th-century classical liberal philosopher Herbert Spencer. He does this by constructing a stunningly attenuated chain of influences: Rand Paul to his father Ron Paul, who was unquestionably influential on his thinking; Ron Paul to Murray Rothbard, by whom Ron Paul was greatly influenced; and Murray Rothbard to Herbert Spencer, whose book Social Statics Rothbard called “the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.”

Millhiser offers no direct evidence that Rand Paul himself is a fan of Herbert Spencer, even though he implies so in his title. Despite this bit of journalistic malfeasance, Millhiser marches bravely forward with further misrepresentations about Spencer’s ideas, and, by implication, Senator Paul’s. Here Millhiser is joining a long, if not admirable, tradition of people misrepresenting Herbert Spencer’s ideas in order to attack proponents of capitalism. As usual, those critics are wrong about what Spencer himself actually wrote and believed.

Paul Krugman Can’t Find Any Libertarians

Paul Krugman has a blog post at the New York Times that seems to be based on no research at all. But it has a snappy four-cell matrix so you’ll know it’s like real economics.

Krugman’s argument is that “there basically aren’t any libertarians.” And here’s the graph that proves it:

Krugman libertarians box

See how small the letters are in two of the boxes? That shows you that there aren’t any people in those boxes. “There ought in principle, you might think, be people who are pro-gay-marriage and civil rights in general, but opposed to government retirement and health care programs — that is, libertarians — but there are actually very few.” And there are also very few people who are “socially illiberal” and supportive of government social programs, he says.

But you know, there’s research on this. David Kirby and I have done some of it, in studies on “the libertarian vote.” But two political scientists examined a similar matrix back in 1984 and found roughly even numbers of people in each box.

Part of the trick here is that Krugman has used a vague term, “socially liberal,” for one of the dimensions of the matrix, and a radical policy position, “no social insurance,” for the other dimension. The logical way would be to use either common vague terms for both dimensions – say “socially liberal/conservative” and “fiscally liberal/conservative” – or specific and similarly radical terms for both dimensions, something like “no social insurance” and “repeal all drug laws.” Wonder how many people would be in the boxes then? 

“No social insurance” is a very radical position. Even many libertarians wouldn’t support it. Like Hayek. So to find the divisions in our society, we might choose a specific issue of personal freedom – gay marriage, say – along with an equally controversial economic policy such as school choice or a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

Familiar Yet Forgotten Tax Lessons from Ancient Greece and Rome

In Ancient Greece, “The politicians strained their ingenuity to discover new sources of public revenue… . The results of these imposts was a wholesale hiding of wealth and income, Evasion became universal, goods were seized, men were thrown into jail. But the wealth still hid itself, or melted away.”

–Will Durant The Life of Greece, Simon and Schuster, 1939. P. 66.

 In ancient Rome; “taxation rose to such heights that men lost incentive to work or earn, and an erosive contest began between lawyers finding devices to evade taxes and lawyers formulating laws to prevent evasion. The government issued decrees binding the peasant to his field and the worker to his shop until all his debts and taxes had been paid. In this and other ways medieval serfdom began.”

–Will, and Durant, Ariel. The Lessons ofHistory, Simon and Schuster, 1968.

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