15 Jun 2015

Is It Justified to Torture the Word “Libertarian” If It Makes Us Happier?

Libertarianism 70 Comments

I don’t mean to be a whiner but check this out from Scott Sumner’s recent EconLog post:

Unlike many on the left, I don’t envy the rich. I’m really happy that Larry [Ellison] is really happy. If Larry was even a bit happier, and if that boosted total global happiness, that would be fine with me. But I can’t get away from the implication of (what I perceive as) diminishing marginal utility. Some redistribution is justified.

Larry Ellison is extremely lucky to live in a universe where:

1. Government is very inefficient.
2. Incentives have a surprisingly strong effect on behavior.

If not for those practical limitations to redistribution, it would be hard to argue against people who favor taking away almost all of Ellison’s wealth, and reducing his consumption levels back to roughly average. But that’s not the world we live in; Larry’s very lucky that incentives do matter a lot and that governments are very inefficient. Even Sweden tolerates multi-billionaires for pragmatic reasons. Thus even a pure utilitarian like me favors MTRs on top consumption peaking at perhaps 80%, not 99.999%.

I plead innocent to both charges. I’m a pragmatic libertarian who just happens to think that global happiness would be maximized by small government, free market economic systems, with a few interventions to deal with externalities like pollution, and also to redistribute consumption.

It just so happens that most of my policy recommendations help the super rich (but not redistribution). But it also just so happens that all of my policy recommendations help the poor. There may be some potential policies out there that boost Larry Ellison’s happiness by more than it hurts the happiness of the poor, and where a true libertarian like me would have to favor the rich over the poor.

I don’t think it is useful for Scott to refer to himself as a “true libertarian” after admitting that Larry Ellison is lucky that there are some practical roadblocks such that Scott only wants to tax 80% of his consumption rather than 99.999%. Doesn’t mean I’m right or that Scott is wrong, it just means that it’s pointless to use words if they can be used in such ways.

70 Responses to “Is It Justified to Torture the Word “Libertarian” If It Makes Us Happier?”

  1. Bob Roddis says:

    You are right. Sumner is wrong.

    • Bala says:

      You are wrong. Scott is hilarious.

      • Z says:

        Scott is hilarious. Sumner is wrong. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

  2. Grane Peer says:

    True libertarian? What a piece of smurf.

    • Z says:

      Hey!! Quit cursing, you bastard.

  3. Brent says:

    I commented to him that his 80% rate seemed spiteful even in his own terms. His response was the typical flippant remark about how “he woulsd steal it all if he were truly spiteful”.

    Big talking academics really need to just get their ass kicked sometimes.

    • khodge says:

      and I commented that I thought Brent was soft in his answer…confiscatory taxes and small government are mutually exclusive.

  4. E. Harding says:

    Yeah, I agree, Bob. Though I love Scott’s stuff (he’s the guy I most end up agreeing with when I go through my RSS feeds, even though we have our disagreements), I wouldn’t classify him (or me) as a libertarian. Central banking, 80% tax rates, wage subsidies, etc., are not libertarian by any standard. I now understand the allure of Sumner you talked about in earlier years.

    • Z says:

      Usually when you are young, you look forward to the Summer. As you start to grow up, it soon loses its appeal.

    • Keshav Srinivasan says:

      Would you consider Milton Friedman a libertarian?

  5. David Friedman says:

    1. He’s suggesting a top rate of 80%, not an average rate, although at Ellison income the difference may be small.

    2. “Libertarian” isn’t a binary category. One can be more libertarian or less. Scott’s position is much more libertarian than the median U.S. voter, less libertarian than your position or mine. Whether one describes him as a libertarian then depends on context, on how strongly one is using the term.

    • Brent says:

      Possibly the only thing more invasive than the income tax would be a ‘progressive’ consumption tax. How would this possibly even work anyway? Every single thing you receive (physical good or service) would have to be recorded, monetarily assessed, and then you get a tax bill at the end of the year??? Could you imagine the difficulty with business vs. consumption purchases? And why wouldn’t everyone like Ellison (and likely millions more who would get caught up in these crazy rates) just make a non-profit to fund everything he couldn’t consume through his business?

      • Zack says:

        Brent, I believe Sumner is just talking about a progressive tax on wages with no taxes on capital gains and interest.

      • Gene Callahan says:

        Tax luxury goods?

        • Anonymous says:

          So what is a luxury good and what if the guy with a middle income vs. a million dollar income buys it? Aren’t they supposed to pay a lower marginal tax rate? And then if Ellison buys it, he is supposed to pay a lot more, no?

        • Brent says:

          I think it would have to be separate marginal rates for separate people on EVERYTHING they consume, changing depending on how much they consume over some time period, no?

          Anyway, how to classify luxury goods would be a joke. And if a middle income man buys such a good vs. a person with a million dollar income, aren’t they supposed to pay a lower marginal rate? (Also, what if businesses respond with price discrimination? Would this be tax evasion? Speaking of which, I see no way around requiring every business to record every item purchased by every customer – with the timestamp, of course.)

      • Tel says:

        Gosh! A tax like that would need a really big database. I happen to know this guy who could set you up with something… for the right kind of redistribution of course, eyebrow eyebrow.

      • Harold says:

        How about add up your money at the start of the year, add your income, then take away your money at the end of the year. The difference is your consumption. Inspired by Landsburg, but I might have got it wrong.

        • Richie says:

          Are you lumping savings in with consumption?

          • Harold says:

            I don’t think so, at least not intentionally. Start with savings at beginning of the year, add on income, take away savings at end of year. If you consume all your income then your savings at the end of the year will be the same as at the start, and you will have consumed all your income. If you save some of your income, your savings at the end will be larger than at the start, so you have consumed less than your income.

            Your consumption will include any money spent abroad.

    • E. Harding says:

      Payroll taxes are much easier to implement and are highly effective at boosting revenue.

    • Major.Freedom says:

      Dr. Friedman, by saying that someone can be more libertarian and less libertarian implies that libertarianism itself is binary.

      One cannot be more or less of X unless X is a rigid, unchanging concept with definite meaning.

      Any rigid, unchanging concept with definite meaning is what we call a binary concept. It is “this”, and nothing else.

      When you say a person is more libertarian or less libertarian, what you are actually referring to is a person who has “mixed” views on liberty. This range of views are non-binary. For here there is no single, rigid unchanging and definite meaning of “mixed views”. It is a spectrum of views, which range from one step or one view away from libertarianism on the one side, to one step or view away from totalitarianism on the other.

      If a person has views that include both a respect for and defense of individual private property rights as well as occasions where they believe violating those rights is justified, then they are not libertarians, but something else.

      All the myriad of X-libertarian labels, are ways that we can more accurately label a mixed view. It does not mean the view is libertarianism. Yes, we can say it is more libertarian or less libertarian than another view, but there is no reason why we should not use the other words and say that this more libertarian view is less statist than, or that less libertarian view is more statist than. The word libertarian here is only meant to help us understand a mixed view on more detail.

      Doing this does not mean libertarianism itself is not binary. For it is definite. Liberty means something. We can argue about what exactly it means, but invariably we would both be presuming that libertarianism is this, but not that, or definitely not that, but more like this, etc.

      On a perhaps unrelated note: all thought is binary. You are showing this to be the case if you believe or insist that anything I said above is wrong.

      What a seeming non-binary thought consists of, conceptually, is either a not fully fleshed out series of contradicting thoughts or assumptions, or a temporary pause on one’s thoughts as assumptions are accumulated but the logic of which will invariably lead to contradictory thoughts.

      In Sumner’s case, he has contradictory beliefs about right behavior. One and the same premise is held as both right and wrong, but is presented as motte and bailey rhetoric. The contradictions are given the label “pragmatism”.

      Sumner is definitely no libertarian. He advocates and wishes for systematic naked aggression against individual property rights.

      • Major.Freedom says:

        Sorry, typo:

        This range of views are what you might refer to as non binary.

      • Harold says:

        When you say all thought is binary I am not sure what you mean.
        “One cannot be more or less of X unless X is a rigid, unchanging concept with definite meaning.”

        But “Tallness” is a non-binary concept. I can be taller than you. There is no fixed point at which I become tall, but I can be more or less tall.

        I think I get your view on libertarianism. For any question there is a libertarian answer and other answers that are not libertarian. On any particular question there is no sliding scale, such as there is with tallness. The answer is binary: libertarian or not. A person who gives the liberatarian answer to more questions than another could be said to be more libertarian. But a true libetarian is only that person who gives the libertarian answer to every question.

        • skylien says:


          Really, how dare you giving MF a reasonable answer without telling him what a nutjob he is!

          • Harold says:

            I didn’t realise it was compulsory 😉 – until I saw the comments down below. Is it too late? Can I call him one now?

            No, irritating as hell sometimes, but probably not nutjob.

            • skylien says:

              I am sure MF can forgive you, I am not so sure about Gene et al though..


        • Grane Peer says:


          I guess you never think of anyone as short just more or less tall. That would explain why you don’t understand what Major.Freedom wrote. Although I think it more likely that you are Floris from Being John Malkovich.

        • Major.Freedom says:


          I think the analogue here would be “tall”, not “tallness”.

          If you consider the term tall, then what I am saying about libertarianism does not necessarily imply that that we have to treat tall as a quantifiable concept, in which case we then have to face the problem of an ultimate, objective standard of measure after which we are practically left with having to treat tall as used in relative comparisons.

          The way I say libertarian is a rigid, unchanging concept with definite meaning, if we switch to the concept of tall, would have me saying that tall is a rigid, unchanging concept as it can be, indeed must be, distinguished absolutely from the concept of “short” in order to have the meaning it does.

          When we consider the concept “tall”, and no specific criteria or assumptions are explicit, we almost always mean an absolutely rigid concept that is greater than some “average” or “normal” standard.

          If you tell me, “That dude is tall”, then you know that I know that you mean a very specific thing. And, very much like libertarianism where we can argue and debate just what the term “tall” means in more precise detail, what we are still left with is the meta assumption that tall means “this but not that”.

          That is what I mean by rigid, unchanging concept with definite meaning. That is what I mean by all thought being binary.

          And similar to my response to Dr. Friedman’s argument that libertarianism is not binary, by me saying what he is referring to are mixed concepts, a range of possible meanings, I will say the same thing about your proposal of considering the term ” tallness”. Here, you are saying that a concept has the predicate of tallishness, or tallish, or having something to do with tall. And you said that by tallness, you mean something might be considered as having the predicate of tallishness, but only if we include another predicate of a relation to something else, whereby the thing we are calling taller, might very well be “short” if we ask whether that thing is tall or short.

          Or, more succinctly, if I ask you whether Robert Wadlow (tallest man in recorded history) was “tall” or “short”, then I think an honest answer would be “tall” even though he was shorter than a giraffe or brontosaurus.

          The concept of “tall” is the analogue to “libertarian”. Not “tallness”. When you say “tallness”, right away you are talking about a mixed concepy that does not distinguish it from short.

  6. Dan says:

    If we went by all the people claiming to be libertarian, the label could mean anything from commie/socialist/facist to ancom/ancap and anything in between. I’m not against labels, I think they are useful for giving the broad overview of what you believe, but libertarian is used by so many people with diametrically opposed positions that it isn’t a very useful label for clarification purposes.

    • Bob Roddis says:

      Walter Ulbricht was much more libertarian than Pol Pot.

  7. Levi Russell says:

    In this post Scott said that the tax on luxury goods was “successful” even though it cost the economy 25,000 jobs.

    I commented:

    “I wouldn’t want to be one of the 25,000 families whose breadwinner was suddenly out of a job. If “free-market” economists think this sort of thing is okay given that it may reduce inequality (whatever that is), I’d hate to read what the non-free-market types would say.”

    And he replied:

    “Levi, 100,000s of jobs were lost when we automated telephone networks, and fired telephone operators. Was that a bad decision?”


    • Major.Freedom says:

      That’s like saying it is OK to shoot innocent people dead because people could die from natural causes.

    • guest says:

      He appears to understand, judging from his reply to you, that it’s not jobs, per se, that are desired.

      The flip side of that, though, is that it’s the stuff to which the jobs permit access that is desired.

      (As Andrew_FL says: “The real economy is measured in stuff”.)

      But if it’s the stuff that’s desired, then consumers, themselves, are naturally going to create “wealth inequality” in favor of those who provide them what they want.

      So, to burden those who are providing what consumers want, in the name of equality, is to diminish the capacity to provide the stuff for which consumers work.

      Consumers create “inequality”, not greedy or awesomely-better-than-you-at-business businessmen.

  8. Andrew Keen says:

    It makes more sense if you know that Scott is working to replace the word “util” with the word “libert” in mainstream economic discourse. In this case, Scott is arguing that the poor would receive more liberts from Larry’s money than Larry does. If this is true, then a wealth transfer might increase aggregate liberty. It’s all quite reasonable so long as you don’t let pesky details like “the original meaning of words” inhibit your understanding of important truths.

  9. Keshav Srinivasan says:

    Bob, don’t you recognize that there can be utilitarian libertarians as well as deontological libertarians like yourself? Sumner is just saying that libertarian policies were bad from a utilitarian point of view, then he wouldn’t favor them, but given that he thinks they are good from a utilitarian point of view from the most part, he mostly does favor them.

  10. Bob Roddis says:

    For years, Major Freedom made thoughtful but firm Austrian critiques of Sumner in the comments section of Sumner’s blog on a daily basis. Sumner always ignored him until one day:


    How libertarian was that?

    • Gene Callahan says:

      Hilarious: every single person who comments there realizes MF is a complete nutjob and quite rightly ignores him. In fact, Sumner’s initial mistake was to NOT ignore him, until he realized how pointless discussion with MF was. So MF started personally insulting Sumner (like he did just above the comment you link to). He earned what he got in that comment, but good!

      • Josiah says:

        Hilarious: every single person who comments there realizes MF is a complete nutjob and quite rightly ignores him.

        I long ago gave up even reading MF’s interminable comments. I just scroll past them even if (or, should I say, especially if) they are replies to me.

        • E. Harding says:

          I always read MF’s comments. He’s the most principled and ideologically consistent person in this room. I admire him for this.

          • Richie says:

            Which is why he drives people like Gene and Josiah crazy and call him a “nut job.”

      • skylien says:

        If someone with opinion X intentionally goes to a blog having the opposite opinion Y to discuss this issue, and suprise surprise doesn’t convince the blog owner and his ‘fanboys’ that they are completely wrong then that proves he is a complete nutjob?

        Gene, why don’t you go to Mises.org or any other blog having an oppinion entirely opposing to your views and convince the writers and its ‘fanboys’ there how wrong they are?

        BTW: Bob posts there and as far as I know he doesn’t think MF is a complete nutjob. And as far as I know you don’t think Bob is, so? All those things just don’t add up. Why is it always getting personal..

        • Josiah says:

          If someone with opinion X intentionally goes to a blog having the opposite opinion Y to discuss this issue, and suprise surprise doesn’t convince the blog owner and his ‘fanboys’ that they are completely wrong then that proves he is a complete nut job?

          No, MF’s posts prove that he’s a complete nut job.

          • Flashman says:

            Damn MF’s logic, principles and consistency. He must be certifiable.

          • Flashman says:

            Damn MF’s logic, principles, consistency and patience in the face of ad hominem nonsense. He must be certifiable.

          • Grane Peer says:

            “No, MF’s posts prove that he’s a complete nut job.”

            Which you know because you read them. Crying in the shower can’t wash away the truth.

            • Josiah says:

              Which you know because you read them.

              I used to read them. I stopped when it became clear doing so was an utter waste of my time.

              • Richie says:

                “I used to read them. I stopped when it became clear [I couldn’t refute his arguments.]”

                There, fixed it for you.

              • Major.Freedom says:

                Some people debate because they want people to agree with them, and find it a waste of time if they can’t get people to agree with them.

                Others debate because they want to arrive at or get closer to the truth of things.

                You make your choice, and I’ll make mine.

          • Richie says:

            How is he a “nut job”? Because he disagrees with you, or because you can’t refute his arguments? Most likely the latter.

            • Josiah says:

              How is he a “nut job”?

              I believe the phrase is ‘res ipsa loquitur.’

              • Richie says:

                Oh I see, you can’t explain it, you just weasel out of it. Typical.

              • Major.Freedom says:

                Actually Josiah what you’re stumbling towards is the fallacy of essentialization.

          • Major.Freedom says:

            You have not shown anything I said to be “nutjob”.

            I’ll even let you define that slippery term any way you want.

      • Major.Freedom says:

        It is comments like this that only reinforce my prior that Callahan has less concern for truth, logic and consistency than me.

        Callahan, I purposefully post on that blog BECAUSE so many people there disagree with me. To say that the number of people who do disagree with me there is some sort of evidence of the quality of what I write is like pointing to Mr. Smith after he went to Washington and saying “He must be a loony! Look at how many people!e disagree with him!”

        It is astounding how you intentionally put such a simple and obvious point over your own head so as to psychologically ingratiate himself with delusions of truth by majority vote.

        Just look at how many posters on this blog disagree with what you write. It you don’t see me being so weak minded so as to pretend that fact alone is some sort of evidence that you have a cornucopia of flawed convictions. No, I have more confidence in what I have taken the time to learn and accept. I don’t need to resort to veiled ad populum and other argumentative fallacies.

  11. Bob Roddis says:

    According to Sumner, Major Freedom is worse than Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Ivan the Terrible, and Ghengis Khan.


    • Gene Callahan says:

      And Bob, echoing MF’s completely moronic comment is not helping your case: Sumner called MF tasteless and classless, not “worse than Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Ivan the Terrible, and Ghengis Khan.”

  12. Andrew_FL says:

    As I said before: Sumner the Utilitarian is much more frightening than Sumner the advocate of currency monopoly.

    • Tel says:

      Keep quiet you, and get back to stacking those utils.


    • E. Harding says:

      True. Sumner the Utilitarian is frightening, but titillating.

  13. Major_Freedom says:

    Callahan’s and Josiah’s comments are more evidence that I am on the right track.

    Both complained about my writing, yet neither could engage or address any substantive point of disagreement. Both are just metaphorically flipping the bird, name calling, essentially behaving emotionally immature. Nutjob? How old are we?

    The main reason Callahan and Josiah are writing what they are writing, is that both have written comments that I have vociferously rebuked and challenged, and they don’t have any substantive rebuttal, do they have to cover up for that hole with obnoxious voitriol.

    I challenge both to prove something I said, anything I said, economics or ethics related, to be false or misleading.

    • skylien says:

      “I challenge both to prove something I said, anything I said, economics or ethics related, to be false or misleading”

      That is not even the point. As if it would prove that you are a complete nutjob just because you are wrong in one point…

      • Major.Freedom says:

        What Callahan means when he says “nutjob” is really “I strongly dislike because it makes me feel bad, but what you write I cannot refute, so I will compensate by using caustic rhetoric.”

        But you’re right. I was just making the challenge so ridiculously and generously one sided in his favor, that if he can’t even do that, then the point I am making will be incontrovertible to an impartial observer, and if honesty reigns, then to Callahan as well.

        I won’t hold my breath on the latter.

    • Patrick says:

      I come here mainly for the commentary. And mostly for MF’s comments at that. Debates with LK are the most enlightening as to the stubbornness of Keynesian dogma. MF may go on at length too difficult to maintain the attention of many of you, but his principled and consistent arguments are seemingly too difficult to refute for most to even attempt.

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