For Paternalistic Libertarianism


Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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11 Responses

  1. Michael Drew says:

    Kling suggests:

    In libertarian paternalism, the emphasis is on Paternalism with a capital P. Imagine instead that we were talking about paternalistic Libertarianism, in which case we would be trying to come up with ways to nudge the ruling class toward giving up power.

    Why just imagine? It’s a free country. If you want your brand of libertarianism to be Paternalistic libertarianism, you (Arnold, whoever) can do that. Sunnstein and Thaler want their brand of paternalism to be Libertarian paternalism. (Somehow I’m guessing most libertarians are fine how they are, thanks.) There really is far less ground for liberaltarian comity here than it sometimes seems. The camps simply occupy different positions. That said, the Nudge folks’ utilization of therm ‘libertarian’ to describe their paternalism is not some kind of expropriation of a privately-held property. It’s a term in the public domain available for use.Report

    • @Michael Drew, I think the point is that Sunnstein and Thaler are marketing this concept as being friendly to libertarians and libertarianism. The trouble is that since the concept is only ever applied to justify new government intrusions rather than to roll back existing government intrusions, there doesn’t seem to be anything libertarian about it at all.

      I don’t know if this is an accurate criticism of Sunnstein and Thaler’s proposals because I haven’t read their book, but it seems to me that this is what Kling is driving at – the term is not accurate at all.Report

      • @Mark Thompson,

        There doesn’t seem to be anything Libertarian about it, sure, because there isn’t. It ‘s paternalism. But as paternalism goes, they take their approach to be relatively libertarian. This is what I am saying about the word. You use it with a lower case, but to the extent you mean it to refer to your political ideology, when in fact it can have many other meanings, you are really using it in a way in which you should be capitalizing it, or otherwise recognizing the particularity of your definition. It’s available to the public for other uses, and Sunnstein and Thaler can use it to modify their ideology as much as they like, regardless of whatever marketing effect that may have.

        This also points up the extent to which the label “Libertarian” is really uniquely important to the ideology it connotes for some people. People want to say they “are a libertarian” but then faced with questions about just where that puts them wrt the scope and size of gov’t (ie are you an anarchist?), they end up saying that “libertarianism is a vector.” Well, if that’s the case, then why have a word for it at all? You can just say, “I think the government should have somewhat more limited size and scope than it does, though I’m not sure how far I would take that if I could take it as far as I liked.” The reason, of course, is that that attenuated statement has absolutely none of the moralistic/absolutist punch of the implied claim that one values liberty above all else and without restriction that saying one is a Libertarian (or libertarian) has.Report

        • @Michael Drew, I think there’s a couple of things tied up in here. First, it seems like a big part of the problem is that Sunnstein and Thaler are specifically trying to market their project to libertarians, who are, to say the least, unpersuaded. That said, it may well be that libertarians are overly protective of the use of the word libertarian – indeed, intra-libertarian arguments of what is and is not “libertarian” remind one of nothing so much as the stadium scene in “Life of Brian.” But then again, there’s occasionally a good reason for this, especially given that the term “libertarian” largely came about only because the term “liberal” had ceased to mean anything resembling modern libertarianism.Report

          • @Mark Thompson,

            Outside of the very most modern American usage, the term “liberal” or “liberalism” is actually rather well defined (there’s been some good discussion of it here recently, in fact), and it is for the most part not nearly so tightly related to the historical doctrines of “classical” or “economic liberalism” as it is sometimes thought. Certainly “liberalism” has not throughout its history, until recently as you say, been thought to denote “laissez faire economics.” There is a whole suite of meanings tied up in liberalism relating to broad ideas about the relation of the individual to the state that never have really had much to do with what Libertarianism currently holds itself to be. That is because Libetarianism is itself a relatively new doctrine.Report

            • @Michael Drew, I can’t agree with that. I mean, compare Emerson’s Self-Reliance or his writings on free trade to Atlas Shrugged or the Fountainhead. I would submit that the primary difference is in tone rather than philosophy. Then of course you’ve got Adam Smith. Meanwhile, Hayek’s opening chapters of RTS quite ably document the role of laissez-faire in 18th and 19th century liberal thought.

              Beyond that, though, I think you misunderstand the role of laissez-faire economics in libertarian thought. Libertarian thought is not based in laissez-faire economics, but rather vice-versa. Libertarians certainly overemphasize the latter, especially nowadays, but therein lies the crux of the disagreement – from the perspective of the libertarian, it is a gigantic mistake to think that the definition of liberalism could be altered in such a way as to no longer imply a form of laissez-faire economics.

              That’s not to say that this line of thought is 100% correct. It ignores that liberals have in recent years generally accepted the notion that reasonably free markets are a necessary element of human liberty. It also ignores that many of the great classical liberals, including Smith, were not market anarchists even if they believed strongly in laissez-faire economics of some sort. And perhaps most importantly, it often ignores the ways in which existing distortions to laissez-faire may make additional, remedial distortions necessary.

              But nonetheless, it is a good faith and very supportable argument to hold that libertarianism is merely another word for classical liberalism.Report

              • @Mark Thompson, Liberalism certainly always placed property rights among the most important rights that need to be vindicated. But property rights are currently secure. Liberals still support them. Liberalism is also the doctrine that got us from subjects to citizens, that says we have right to have a say in the constitution of our government, etc. If you want to say that Libertarianism is literally identical to liberalism except in name, then you have to acknowledge that, preserving the context in which liberalism arose — competing mercantilist monarchies with no individual rights whatsoever — it is a project that has resoundingly triumphed in the West. The bulk of what liberals sought is in place in this country. We live in a liberal society. We do still, however, have government, and as such some level of taxation (seizing of property) is necessary (I believe you hold that view as well). Unless we hold that liberalism (as opposed to Libertarianism) implies anarchy, then there will be an argument over the extent of the state. Liberals can hold that the state should undertake certain legitmate aims (as arbitrated by the sovereign people), and thus maintain a certain level of taxation, while still be liberals in good standing. This is because they believe in things like popular sovereignty, individual rights such as voting, due process, and the like. A particular economic viewpoint is not implied by liberalism in the modern context because liberalism is a project that has succeeded so overwhelmingly given its initial context. It would be absurdly restrictive that this doctrine that has moved the relation of state to society so far in the last three or four centuries doesn’t leave room after doing so for argument about what the resulting end state should be. But there will, of course, always be those who hold that the state should be still more limited/reduced in its aims and size. In the context of a liberal society then, those people might perhaps want to create a self-conscious identity in order to distinguish themselves from others who don’t have that self-conscious view (as opposed to simply holding whatever complicated views on those questions they hold, and expressing them in nuanced, undifferentiating ways), and “Libertarian” is the label that was chosen.

                If you just want to say that you are a liberal with a particular view about what the size of the remaining state should be, that’s great, but it isn’t right to say that liberalism implies all liberals must have that view after liberalism has shifted the private-public balance so far toward the private, or at least the non-monarchical (in fact, it really invented that whole dichotomy).Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    Two handy definitions that I’ve seen are “Libertarians are Liberals who have fallen out of love with centralized control” and “Libertarians are Conservatives who have fallen out of love with Authority”.

    My personal favorite is “Libertarians are Liberals without any goddamn common sense.”Report