Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Anti-statism in America is excellent

Though I count the need for only two shots (#5 and #7) according to the Richard Hofstadter Drinking Game, this John Judis op-ed on is still pretty dreadful.

(Side note: I am occasionally tempted to start some sort of sideline consulting business giving seminars to clueless center-leftists on what libertarians actually think.
See, e.g.)

Anyway, Judis's thesis is that while Americans are okay with specific government programs, they are not with expansions of the size and scope of government generally, and it is this seeming contradiction that prevents useful reforms from getting enacted. I, on the other hand, suspect that the anti-statists who nonetheless approve of specific programs are more genuinely libertarian than Judis thinks they are for several reasons:

1)Political ignorance: I should properly kick this to Pnin to write about at his own blog, as he's forgotten more than I'll ever know about political ignorance. But I do recall a blog post -- which I can't find at the second -- linking to a survey showing that a lot of people tell pollsters that they approve of specific legislation that doesn't actually exist. I wonder if the same effect is going on here? That is, voters who have genuinely libertarian impulses tell pollsters that they approve of specific programs, rather than just admitting "I don't know" or "I haven't had the chance to think this through."

2)Intuitions about slippery slope concerns: Although a specific policy may not expand the size and scope of government dramatically, its enactment may nonetheless lead politicians further and further down a slippery slope toward dramatically expanding the size and scope of government. Many of the most prominent libertarian thinkers have drilled down prominently on this argument: see, e.g., Hayek's Road to Serfdom or Higgs's Crisis and Leviathan. So some of Judis's anti-statists might be okay with Pelosian health "reform" in its current incarnation, but only if it doesn't lead us down any further slippery slopes.

Pennsylvania taxpayers are still paying an "emergency" Johnstown Flood tax enacted in the 1930s. The early federal income tax rates were extremely low compared to today's brackets. It is not bug-eyed insane to have slippery slope concerns about a particular public policy. In light of all of the historical evidence, it may be bug-eyed insane not to.

3)The seen vs. the unseen: I can't say it better than John Hasnas did in this editorial. It's easy to have compassion for the individuals who benefit most from a particular government program. It is harder to have compassion for all the small losses that individual taxpayers incur in taking on their health care costs. That doesn't mean that the small losses don't add up, and that these small losses don't have a real impact on the national economy. Some of Judis's anti-statists may favor expansions of government when they think about all the seen beneficiaries, but balk when asked to consider the more abstract consequences of helping small classes of seen beneficiaries. That doesn't mean that they're necessarily statists at heart.

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