My journey to the left wing, and back again
When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir? – JM Keynes
At a restaurant somewhere back in 2008 I had a long argument with my father about private schooling. I was making the argument that private schools should be banned, on the grounds that it was unfair for the children of wealthy parents to receive better schooling, which then increases their chances of going to the best universities, which then increases their chance of getting the best jobs etc. My father objected not on the grounds that this wasn’t unfair, but that the ban was a gross invasion of personal liberty and wouldn’t work anyway, as how could you stop parents hiring tutors at home, or tutoring their kids themselves, without spying on them in their own homes? I was a philosophy student, arguing from the position of what I thought was theoretically ‘right’, whereas my father was approaching from a more pragmatic ‘would it work?’ perspective.
My recent journey from being a liberal to a liberal-libertarian (or ‘Liberaltarian’) is almost the opposite of the one that Will Wilkinson spoke of in a characteristically outstanding essay over at Big Think. Mr Wilkinson describes himself at one point in as having undergone a “drift from right-leaning libertarian to libertarian-leaning liberal” who came to recognise the external forces that affect people’s lives and over which they have little or no authorship. At university I found myself falling into a much more extreme position – that if you consider the kinds of reasons that we accept as excuses or absolution of responsibility in normal cases, then it appears that we are not responsible (or have diminished responsibility) for almost everything we do. I still find these arguments extremely compelling. However, I have come to agree with Mr. Wilkinson that fostering individual conscientiousness and an ethos of responsibility are extremely important in practice for a prosperous and well-functioning society.
I would argue that in my own drift towards libertarianism I have not really revised my moral principles much, if at all. In a post last year (a time when I would still say things like Wilkinson being ‘the sole redeeming feature of the CATO Institute’), I argued that the state is justified only because the good it does outweighs the bad of its coercive nature, and actually took this to be an argument against libertarianism on the basis that even a radically libertarian state is unjustifiably coercive in normal social contract terms. Everyone is playing the ‘how good are the consequences of government’ game whether they like it or not, and I thought the consequences of liberal government were good.
What I have radically revised are my empirical beliefs about the world – namely, what is the actual effect of government policy and regulation, especially on the poor. I found myself completely persuaded by libertarian economists enamoured with public choice theory, which attempts to explain the systemic reasons why government policies so often fail to achieve their objectives. The absolutely superb Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog is a treasure-trove of compelling arguments that government regulation and initiatives designed to help the poor are often either so flawed or subject to co-opting by special interests that they end up hurting the very people they intended to protect.
Scott Sumner awakened me to the importance of monetary over fiscal policy (and, indeed, the arguable irrelevance of the latter) as the appropriate mechanism for macroeconomic management. And argued that the falsity of the efficient markets hypothesis doesn’t have the policy consequences I thought it does.
Michael Mandel, amongst others, persuaded me that economies grow through constant innovation and invention.
Will Wilkinson, amongst others, persuaded me that inequality is a complicated phenomenon and a consequence of injustice, rather than constitutive of it.
Brian Caplan, amongst others, persuaded me that the most powerful policy weapon against poverty by far would be open borders.
And finally, a year of reading philosophy, politics, economics and finance blogs for 2+ hours every day has demonstrated to me just how little I knew even as an ostensibly informed university student, and that the ability of people to understand and shape complex phenomena is much less than we ordinarily think. And thus I am persuaded by Hayek that the great thing about markets is that they co-ordinate all the little bits of knowledge that individual agents have and that simply cannot be aggregated by even an extremely intelligent, inhumanly diligent and miraculously benevolent group of policymakers.
I have always been a consequentialist of sorts, whose politics was concerned with successfully increasing the welfare of the least well off. I have now come to the view that this would be achieved through adopting a substantially more libertarian policy stance. But if you can persuade me that an interventionist policy with good intentions will actually achieve good results, or that a regulation won’t hamper innovation and reduce the welfare of the future poor, or that I shouldn’t worry about the powers that a new law gives to the state and the special interests that will attract – if you do all that, then I will change my mind.
The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design – FA Hayek