Sorry I’ve been so sparse with the blogging, but I was traveling most of last week, and now I have to dig out of a “day job” hole. I am wondering if this is what insanity feels like, because lately I’ve been agreeing with the Keynesian side of internet arguments.
The first one centers on whether John Cochrane made a fool of himself by sorta citing Ricardian Equivalence to argue that stimulus packages even in principle couldn’t raise (nominal) Aggregate Demand. Krugman & Co. have been going nuts, and Scott Sumner has defended Cochrane on grounds that (I think) contradict Sumner’s own view that fiscal policy can indeed raise Aggregate Demand. (I tried to clarify this, but Sumner’s answered doing his best impression of a Sphinx.) I’ll think more about it, but if I had to answer right now, I’d say Krugman wins.
The second one involves Jeffrey Sachs’ recent piece on libertarianism. Steve Horwitz got upset and thought it fed into a stereotype, but I actually had no problem at all with it (besides the fact that Sachs didn’t want to be a “libertarian” so defined). Here’s what Sachs said:
Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable — all are to take a back seat.
Yep, that’s it. And just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding, Sachs even spelled it out:
By taking an extreme view — that liberty alone is to be defended among all of society’s values — libertarians reach extreme conclusions. Suppose a rich man has a surfeit of food and a poor man living next door is starving to death. The libertarian says that the government has no moral right or political claim to tax the rich person in order to save the poor person. Perhaps the rich person should be generous and give charity to the neighbor, the libertarian might say (or might not), but there is nothing that the government should do. The moral value of saving the poor person’s life simply does not register when compared with the liberty of the rich person.
Yep. Just like if Sachs or any of his readers took their kids to the playground, it would never in a million years occur to them to say, “Johnny, today we’re going to feed some homeless people, so go take the lunch from that chunky kid over there, even if he doesn’t want to share.” No, that would be stealing, and no parent would ever tell his kid it’s OK to steal, even though by so doing it might allow us to achieve other worthy goals.
I understand why Horwitz is upset, because he thinks too many self-declared libertarians reject even private altruism/concern for the weak/etc. I am concerned by that too. But the solution isn’t to get mad when somebody like Jeff Sachs comes along and gives a perfectly reasonable description of the libertarian position. As Daniel Kuehn said, after reading Horwitz’s objection to Sachs’ description:
If the difference between those in the classical liberal tradition that call themselves “libertarian” and those in the classical liberal tradition that consider themselves non-libertarians is not making other priorities take a back seat to liberty then what the hell is it that defines libertarianism?
No major blogger or politician is going to come out and say, “Other things equal, I hope poor people starve to death.” Also, no pundit in America will say, “Freedom is overrated.” What makes libertarians stand out is that we say, “We really mean it when we say that liberty is the highest political end. You can’t take people’s property against their will, even if you think (falsely, by the way) that in so doing, you will prevent poor people from starving.”
Indeed, some of us are such zealots that we even think it would be wrong to tax people to prevent an asteroid from destroying the Earth. Take that, Sachs!