Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Arnold King is Basically Solomon

Arnold King is the fairest blogger on the internet, and smarter than me.  So I feel bad criticizing him, but I think he missed the boat here.  In a recent post, he argued that liberals have an exaggerated willingness to see issues in terms of oppression; conservatives have an exaggerated willingness to see issues in terms of barbarism encroaching on civilized life; and, as for libertarians:

A libertarian will exaggerate the extent to which a practice represents coercion. They are fond of saying, “If you don’t comply with xyz policy, men with guns will come and take you to prison.” I understand this argument and I generally take it as valid. However, I can also understand how someone with a different point of view might argue that when they pay taxes what they get in return is a fair deal.

That's characteristically open minded of him, since I think he mostly identifies with the libertarian position.  But sadly, I think it rings false to anyone who has argued with libertarians.  Maybe it's just me, but I most see libertarians exaggerating the extent to which human behavior is dominated by rational economic forces, both in terms of  morality (what's really important here is material goods) and human behavior (people default to engaging in a series of mostly rational economic transactions).  So take selling yourself into slavery: most people immediately dismiss the idea that that should be legal.  But to a lot of libertarians, this just looks like an economic transaction -- a long term employment contract, of sorts.  So the libertarian community has big arguments about whether this sort of thing should be allowed.

The point isn't that all libertarians endorse indentured servitude (most don't, I think, including King) or even that the ones who do endorse it are wrong.  It's just that libertarians tend to see the world in terms of fair, rational, arms-length bargaining, to a super exaggerated extent when compared to other people.  To pick a hyperbolic example, if, in the state of nature, a big man with a club meets a little man with a prosperous farm, in the libertarian world the little man is about to hire the big man as a body guard.

Errata (I am not good at short blog posts, but maybe I can get good at separating the stray observations from the main point.  Feel free to stop reading here):

1. Of course, it isn't a bad thing for people to see the world in different ways, as King makes clear.  Sometimes people do act like rational economic actors and libertarians figure it out before the rest of us and make good policy proposals, so go them.

2.  Just for the record, I oppose letting people sell themselves into slavery, for a variety of reasons.  If anyone cares I can make a blog post about it.

3. This makes libertarians sort of the anti-liberal/conservatives.  If conservatives are constantly fearing barbarism and liberals constantly fearing oppression, libertarians are constantly pretty confident that everything will work out fine if we just give people the right incentives.  This is even true of their big bugaboo, government.  You hear the "men with guns will rob you" argument, yes, but in the main libertarians are surprisingly willing to ascribe what they see as bad government conduct to public choice problems.  They very rarely think the government is a bad actor simply because it is full of oppressive barbarians, though historically some governments are.

4. Seeing the world mostly in terms of rational economic forces also explains King's argument about susan rice:

If you look at the biography of UN Ambassador Susan Rice, she apparently both inherited and married into wealth, received an elite education, worked for McKinsey, and now has a net worth of over $20 million. Yet people on the left describe her as oppressed, because she is African-American and female. I want to say, “Really?”

I don't know if Susan Rice is oppressed, but I know, "Went to a good school and is rich" does not equal "not oppressed," since society has important, non-economic/educational dimensions along which someone can be flexed with.  You can imagine an American Jew in the 30's who went to Harvard, was born into money, and has a good job, but who is still dealing with very real oppression thanks to antisemitism (IE, can't join the clubs he wants, make the friends he wants, loses out on some business opportunities,  etc.  More importantly, all those real slights add up to living in a society that constantly reminds you you are an outsider, which has a real psychological cost).  I'd add that you should not count a person un-opressed until they are dead: that same jew, were he Polish rather than American, would, in ten years, face clear and brutal oppression.  Just so, Susan Rice may yet pay some sort of real consequence for her gender and race (lose her job?).  Or not.  Again, my criticism is more with the argument than with the underlying point.


  1. As I was reading along, I was thinking, "it's got to be the men with guns are gonna come get you if you don't do xyz."spook. Though maybe the fact that Arnold thinks that is a valid argument somewhat makes your point.

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  3. I said something like this on his blog, but I guess I see "men with guns will come get you" as an exaggeration all the sides engage in. Whenever people see the government as doing something illegitimate, they emphasize its coercive nature. What's to stop Bush from dragging you off to Gitmo, Obama is going to kill you with a death panel, government will shoot you if you don't pay your taxes, etc. The only difference with libertarians is that they like what the government does less, so they talk about its coercive nature more.

  4. Don't all sides also emphasize oppression and barbarism? For conservatives, oppression is class warfare. For liberals, barbarism is failure of living wages or decline in middle class manufacturing jobs.

    Most (almost all?) people are opposed to selling people into slavery for the same reason they are opposed to people being allowed to sell their kidney and to people being allowed to sell gasoline at a fair market price after a disaster. The idea is repugnant. The idea is off-putting to them. I don't think repugnance is a very good argument, and I don't think its very well thought out. If you said, "you only think kidney monetary exchanges are a good idea, because you underestimate people's irrationality and overestimate the extend to which economic transactions are at arms length." I'd say, "I'll bite that bullet and concede that some irrational and regrettable decisions would get made with kidney exchanges, but there are also a lot less dead people, so perhaps its better anyway."

    [I don't find Arnold's trichotomy very useful.]

  5. Well barbarism and oppression encompass a lot, and not defining what he specifically meant in this context was a bad idea of his. I think he's talking about why society fails. A liberal will focus on the powerful dominating the weak. A conservative will focus on the delicate nature of civilization and on how immorality and innovation can undermine institutions. So, barbarism and oppression. Going back to my hypothetical, the liberal thinks the big man is going to lord over the little man as a king and the conservative thinks he is going to kill him and burn his farm.

    Also, keep in mind that it has not always been true that most people oppose the institution of slavery, so it can't be some inherent weakness of mind that makes people dislike it. I don't think the issue is "some kinds of markets give people the willies," because in the past a lot of these markets didn't give people the willies. I think it is, "When faced with creating new kinds of markets, liberals focus on the ability for the weak to be trampled in those markets, while conservatives mistrust them because they are new and represent a break with the current, stable, civilized society." This is especially true when new kinds of things -- like organs -- are being brought into the economic world. My argument would be that a libertarian, when hearing about a new kind of market, will almost reflexively support it.

    I would add, as he did, that these aren't mutually contradictory things. The best policies preserve civilization, protect the weak, and make good economic sense.

  6. So the economist defends repugnant markets and the liberal laments the oppression of the rich and powerful. As long as we all play our parts.

  7. Not asking because I disagree, just haven't thought about it before, but what are your reasons for opposing self selling?