Thursday, May 7, 2009

In defense of libertine libertarians

Not so long ago, back in 2005 or so, I wanted to be David Brooks when I grew up. I admired the liveliness of his prose in Bobos in Paradise and (to a slightly lesser extent) in On Paradise Drive. I still strive to cast out zingers like he does. And yet I can't quite love a poor deluded Hamiltonian who periodically spits out columns like this.

My immediate visceral reaction was nearly identical to Will Wilkinson's. See, e.g., elsewhere in Brooks's own paper. Still, I should try to follow Wilkinson's own wise advice (last paragraph) and try to engage constructively with Brooks.

The heart of my disagreement with Brooks comes through in Brooks' second to last paragraph:"And there is the more conservative vision in which government sets certain rules, but mostly empowers the complex web of institutions in which the market is embedded." That is, I'd agree wholeheartedly with that sentence if Brooks struck "empower" and substituted a formulation like "let alone." I suppose that government can "empower" the complex order of civil society-- or at least avoid destroying it -- by letting it alone, though that's rather distorting the ordinary meaning of the word. I fear rather Brooks has in mind
"empowering" in the sense of more ownership society nonsense, which has hardly worked out well to date.

I am all in favor of strong civil society, in favor of the kinds of strong community groups and civic associations that Brooks champions. I lament the extent to which the welfare state has destroyed the kinds of local groups that once thrived. But I don't see how a national political party can, or should, have any role in building one up: back in the day, these groups were quintessentially small and local. I don't know what kinds of groups can most effectively address the needs of people of racial and ethnic groups quite different from my own. Neither can anyone else sitting in an air-conditioned office in Penn Quarter, five hundred miles away from the people she is trying to help. For the most part, we ought to just stay out of such groups' way.

People who want smaller government can essentially tell two kinds of stories in support of our arguments. First, we can tell stories about the failures of governments. We can tell stories about public choice theory and perverse incentives in action. These can be effective, but they work best when talking about policies that have already failed. So we end up telling a second kind of story about how individuals will be just fine without government.

Let me put it another way. I know a fair number of libertarians, including me, who are okay with government regulations of nuclear power plants. I know virtually none who are okay with government banning the distribution of cupcakes in elementary schools. (Yes, there are public schools that have done this.) If expressed to explain this apparent inconsistency, most of us will mutter something about the downside risk of moderate cupcake consumption being lower than that of nuclear explosions. This all seems quite common-sensical, and not many people have cared to push me on the point.

So the second kind of story that libertarians have to tell is why more things are like cupcakes than nuclear power plants. This is why, I suspect, my conservative friends get so exercised about some libertarians' libertine tendencies. I don't, really; I see these libertarians as trying to sell stories about why gay marriage or absinthe or marijuana or whatever is more like cupcakes, and less like nuclear power.

Anyway, I imagine Brooks is getting exercised because libertarian-leaning Republicans spend so much time telling cupcake stories. And maybe we should not be. Maybe we should be focusing more on telling government failure stories. Except there are limits to the government failure genre. First, it doesn't work well with regard to policies not yet in effect. Second, politicians are the people telling such stories, and it's in their self-interest not to knock the capacity of their employers too much. So they try to stay upbeat and keep telling cupcake stories.

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