01 Oct 2012

Bryan Caplan Turns the Tables on the Libertarian Haters

Bryan Caplan, Economics 53 Comments

Bryan Caplan gives a great rhetorical tip to people debating libertarianism. (I gather there are at least 3 of you on the Internet.) I am going to copy and paste most of his post because you really need to see the full context:

“What if a poor person gets sick, doesn’t have insurance, and can’t get friends, family, or charity to pay for treatment?”

“What if an elderly person gets defrauded out of his entire retirement and the perpetrator vanishes into thin air?”

“What if a child is starving on the street, and no one voluntarily feeds him?”

“What if someone just can’t find a job?”

If you’re a libertarian, you face what-ifs like this all the time. The point, normally, is to make you say, “Tough luck” and look like a monster. What puzzles me, though, is why libertarians rarely ask analogous questions. Like:

“What if Congress passes an unjust law, the President signs it, and the Supreme Court upholds it?”

“What if the government conscripts you to fight in an unjust war, and you die a horrible death?”

“What if a poor person drinks and gambles away his welfare check?”

“What if the government denies you permission to legally work?”

“What if the President decides your ethnicity is a national security risk and puts you in a concentration camp, and the Supreme Court declares his action constitutional?”

“What if a person lives an extremely unhealthy lifestyle, so by the time they’re retired, they’re in constant pain no matter how generous their Medicare coverage is?”

“What happens if a President lies to start a war, and voters don’t particularly care?”

53 Responses to “Bryan Caplan Turns the Tables on the Libertarian Haters”

  1. noiselull says:

    It’s simply restating the all-important comparative institutions/nirvana fallacy analysis.

  2. integral says:

    What if a guy goes hiking 500 miles into the wilderness with noone knowing where he is, breaks both legs, and is beset upon by a biker-gang of bears and wolves?

  3. Christopher says:

    I guess the answer from a statist point of view would be that they don’t prefer just any random state over a libertarian society. They advocate a particular kind of state in which those kinds of things allegedly can’t happen. So they’d say ‘yes, a libertarian society might be better than the Nazis. But I know something that’s even better than that.”.

    So the right question to ask is: Is it possible to design a state in a way that rules out or at least drastically reduces the likelihood of those things happening.

    • Daniel Kuehn says:

      And, to be fair, that’s the way libertarians respond to non-libertarian liberals too. They give a wish list, not a set of robust institutions.

      • Silas Barta says:

        Yeah, markets are far from robust.

        • Major_Freedom says:

          Robustness requires the inclusion of a panopticon-like overlord, silly.

  4. Daniel Kuehn says:

    I am genuinely confused by this Bob. I imagine my answers to the second set of questions would be very similar to Bryan’s (maybe he’d promote passivism a little more on a few of them). The whole point of the first set of questions is that presumably there would be a different set of answers.

    • zee says:

      It’s true that maybe you want different sets of answers to the second set of questions, but the point is that you can’t always make it happen. A libertarian could give the same types of answers to the first question. For example: “What if someone just can’t find a job?” A libertarian could say “well, i will work very hard in the private sector to make sure that there are good businesses that will hire people” or something like that. neither you nor the libertarian can guarantee either.

      • Daniel Kueh says:

        Right, I understand that. One of the things I come back to a lot is that libertarians don’t pay enough attention to the robustness of their proposals.

        But what I find interesting is that I think Bryan and my answer to many of the second set of questions are largely the same. What if there’s a draft? Bryan and I both agree there should not be a draft. etc, etc,

        I don’t think the first set is the greatest set of questions, but they actually do a better job distinguishing libertarians from non-libertarians than most of the second set of questions.

        • Matt Tanous says:

          The point of the second set is not so much “we agree that this shouldn’t happen” – even with the first list, libertarians agree those are undesired conditions.

          The point is how you propose to solve it. And if your answer to the first list is generally “give government more power”, you have to be prepared, I think, to explain what you would do if that increasing power comes back to bite you on the ass, so to speak.

          • Daniel Kueh says:

            I understand that Mark, but in a lot of cases my solution is the same as Bryan’s too.

            This is my whole point about how Bryan doesn’t seem to understand who he’s arguing against.

            No matter how many times you say it, our answer actually isn’t “generally ‘give government more power’.”

            • Matt Tanous says:

              “No matter how many times you say it, our answer actually isn’t ‘generally ‘give government more power’.'”

              Your individual answer might not be, but you have to at least concede that for many people – many that are against libertarians in debates – that is their answer: more money, more laws, more police, more government. And even if your answer is to not give government power – except in certain cases – then you open yourself up to the question of what you can do if the government just takes the power anyway.

            • Major_Freedom says:

              What else do attacks on the principles of libertarianism imply, other than presenting more government as a solution? Serious question.

              It’s one thing to say libertarianism doesn’t guarantee food for 100% of the children. It’s quite another to say you are against libertarianism because of that. The latter implies statism.

        • Dan says:

          Huh? We could do the exact same thing with the first set of questions as you did with the draft. “What if someone just can’t find a job?” Daniel K. and I both agree that having a job is good. etc, etc,

          Your response to the conscription question is as much of a non answer as mine above. The question wasn’t do you favor the draft, so I don’t think you have shown anything by answering a different question than the one that was asked. Libertarians can do that too.

          • Daniel Kueh says:

            Bryan and I actually have a policy difference on what to do about the unemployed.

            If there is a policy difference about the draft, I’m not aware of it.

            Of course there are no differences in either question over the fact that we feel bad for the jobless and the draftee. We both mourn that. But the policy differences seem to be concentrated in the first set of questions (which is precisely why those questions are the ones that get asked more often!).

            • Dan says:

              No, there is a difference between how a libertarian views the draft and how you do. Libertarians would say anyone implementing a draft is guilty of kidnapping and slavery, and should be put in jail. Do you have the same policy?

        • zee says:

          ” don’t think the first set is the greatest set of questions, but they actually do a better job distinguishing libertarians from non-libertarians than most of the second set of questions.”

          that could be the case, but libertarianism is also much more limited in scope than other political philosophies. i don’t know many libertarians personally, but it seems that those who are answering the second set of questions put much more of their attention and emphasis on the state while i personally relegate much more of my thoughts and ideas of what i think are important away from the state in my personal life.

        • Ken B says:

          “distinguishing libertarians from non-libertarians ”

          But that’s not the purpose of the questions. Bryan’s allegation is that people ask Libertarians loaded questions designed to elicit from them confessions of moral blindness. Well says Bryan two can play that game, and quite easily. [Puts on best Bob Murphy voice] Why do you support murdering people Daniel, the way FDR murdered Germans and Japanese?

          • Major_Freedom says:

            [Puts on best Bob Murphy voice] Why do you support murdering people Daniel, the way FDR murdered Germans and Japanese?

            That isn’t what Caplan said, if you intended to paraphrase him.

  5. Daniel Kuehn says:

    btw – we do get moronic (and considerably more insulting) questions like “why are you ok with killing innocent children”, and “why don’t you think the market works”

    • Daniel Hewitt says:

      You should read Caplan’s entire post – he discusses status quo bias.

      • Daniel Kueh says:

        I saw that.

        I’m not sure what you think is relevant to my point (maybe to others). Do you think I’m guilty of status quo bias?

        I think there’s a far more fundamental problems with Bryan’s post, and it’s something that in the past I’ve called the fallacy of ideological orthogonality: you assume that because my guys believe X, everyone else must believe not-X.

        As a result, his list doesn’t make all that much sense, at least to me.

        I don’t see how this is status quo bias, although it’s a convenient thing to toss around at people.

        • Ken B says:

          Daniel Kuehn:”Do you think I’m guilty of status quo bias?”

          Only when Democrats are in power.

        • devo says:

          i think the point is to say most of the things we think government should solve, are still persistent problems, and bigger govt wont help anything, it will just cause more problems. my version of libertarianism starts with smaller govt, so if your a libertarian arguing for your case, pointing out the current fallacy’s in govt is a good step and useful tool. its mainly to get people thinking about what the govt currently does, and possible avenues it can take. when people argue what-ifs, its a pointless argument unless they turn those what ifs on their own current beliefs of govt. if you got that already then sorry, i misunderstood your position.

    • Ken B says:

      Yes. Paulines are very fast with the ‘oh you want to kill children and enslave us’ canard. That’s part of what makes this such an amusing thread: Bryan’s ingenuous belief that Libertarians do not engage in exactly the same sort of ‘when did you stop beating your wife’ stuff.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Stop supporting policies that kill children and those complaints will melt away, as if by magic.

        • Ken B says:

          Not so. You support policies that kill children and still hear tendentious complaints don’t you?

          • Ken B says:

            Er. I botched the wording on that. I can’t think of a quick fix to repair the intnded sardonic jest. Here was the underlying thought. Some policies allow that complaint *no matter which side you are on*. Wanna staf in Afstan? Then you support ‘collateral damage’ deaths. Wanna pull out of Afstan? then you support allowing taliban revenge killing.

            Support the death penalty? For killing. Oppose the death penalty? For recidivism.


            • Dan says:

              Ken, I don’t support our government dropping bombs on people and killing children. I also don’t support members of the Taliban killing people. It is ridiculous to imply that no matter what position you support, means that you support killing people.

              • Ken B says:

                But it is not ridiculous to say you will be ACCUSED of it.

              • Dan says:

                Ken, I don’t care when people falsely accuse me of something. I know what my views are and what I support.

                Do you believe that we should not use drones bombs to kill terrorists if there is even the slightest chance that an innocent person will be killed? Do you think someone in the military who kills innocent people in a drone strike should be brought up on charges of, at least, manslaughter?

              • Bob Murphy says:

                Dan wrote: Ken, I don’t care when people falsely accuse me of something. I know what my views are and what I support.

                Dan, some Free Advice: Don’t bother arguing with Ken on this. He will take my freaking joke and analyze it 16 different ways, as if I brought a suit against him in federal court. Then, at the end, he will accuse me of having a bad sense of humor to boot.

              • Ken B says:

                Like DK, I support, to some extent at least, the use of drones. That is what Bob means when he says we support policies that kill children. (Drones can do that if something goes wrong.) Bob made the false claim that if we stop supporting such policies those kinds of complaints will stop as if by magic. But they won’t, we’ll get complaints from others that we support policies (as you and Bob do) that will allow the taliban to triumph. That will kill children too you know. In bad situations sometimes all you have is bad choices. Blaming advocates without acknowledging this is a common tactic. That is why complaints like Bob’s you support policies that kill children are … unhelpfully tendentious. Libertarians above all should know that, but it seems not.

              • Major_Freedom says:

                Ken B:

                That is what Bob means when he says we support policies that kill children. (Drones can do that if something goes wrong).

                You say that like you know the ethical principles of those who use the drones.

                How do you know they care if they kill children? They told you on TV?

                You are just invoking a just world theory.

          • Major_Freedom says:

            Murphy does not support policies that kill children.

  6. Blackadder says:

    I don’t think Daniel is groking Bryan’s point.

    “What if the government conscripts you to fight in an unjust war, and you die a horrible death?”

    It’s not much of an answer to say “oh, I’m against conscription,” or “I’m opposed to unjust wars!” The point is that our system of government allows for such things to happen, just as a proposed libertarian system would allow a child to starve if no one voluntary fed him, etc.

    • Daniel Kueh says:

      I don’t think I’m grokking it either, for what it’s worth. I think that’s part of the reason why I didn’t find it very insightful.

      But I think you’re running in the wrong direction with my bafflement at it.

      We agree on policy, clearly.

      We disagree on institutions.

      Why? Because I think Bryan’s pacifist libertarian polity won’t work out the way he plans and he thinks the same of ours.

      So there’s disagreement on what a polity in practice will allow, but there’s not any confusion that that’s the central point.

      The clarity of the first question is that it’s clear we want not only a different policy but also a different institution. We want government to care for the jobless and he doesn’t. Is it any wonder that those questions are asked more often?

      • Matt Tanous says:

        “We agree on policy, clearly.

        We disagree on institutions.”

        This is not the case – policy cannot exist without institutions. The “policy” Caplan supports in stopping an unjust war is to eliminate government (which is not “pacifist”, by the way). Yours is to, presumably, pass some law or constitutional rule.

        Similarly, with the first list, Caplan proposes charity to solve the problem of someone who can’t get a job, whereas you propose some government action – whether it be direct unemployment subsidies or Keynesian “stimulus” or whatever. Some policy.

        The fact of the matter is that you cannot agree with Caplan – or any libertarian anarchist – on “policy” because, under anarcho-capitalism or private law or whatever you choose to call it – *there is no ‘policy’ at all*.

    • Major_Freedom says:

      The point is that our system of government allows for such things to happen, just as a proposed libertarian system would allow a child to starve if no one voluntary fed him, etc

      You say this like statist systems never have starving children, and statesmen will never “allow” children to starve.

      Keep the faith, BA.

      • Major_Freedom says:

        Or rather, I should say that argument sounds as if statist systems never have starving children, etc…

        • Major_Freedom says:

          Uh…keep the faith…uh…argument.

  7. P.S. Huff says:

    Daniel Kuehn,

    I am 99.847% sure* that Caplan knows that you and others would regard the second list as undesirables. His point is that, though you regard them as bad, you don’t jump to the libertarian solution that we should abolish the things involved (welfare, the state, etc.). And indeed, you shouldn’t jump to that conclusion. That a system involves risks and hardships does not prove that it is not optimal. But by parity of reasoning, it is foolish to condemn libertarians as heartless when they have to say “tough luck.”

    * – I can give more decimals if you want.

    • Daniel Kueh says:

      Well, that probably depends on the given libertarian… some may be heartless.

      But as a general rule, yes – it’s foolish to condemn them as heartless. I don’t think I do, do I?

      • Christopher says:

        Your confusion might be caused by the fact that you don’t generally hate libertarians and don’t think they enjoy seeing poor people starve – so you’re not familiar with that kind of argument we are facing.

        What you have to understand here is that Caplan isn’t arguing for Libertarianism in this post, nor is he arguing against the state. He is merely trying to refute one argument that libertarians are facing quite often which is:

        A libertarian society could theoretically lead to horrible outcomes such as children starving on the streets while nobody cares.

        So far we all agree – that’s theoretically possible. But now, non libertarians usually draw a very bold implied conclusion which is

        therefore I proved that a state run by a government is preferable

        Caplan is just arguing that this conclusion is a non sequitur. Just because one system isn’t perfect you can’t conclude that a different system works better. And his questions merely illustrate this point. Again, he is not making the case for Libertarianism here. Maybe you have just never hear this kind of non libertarian reasoning but I bet most of the libertarians here have heard it quite a lot.

        • skylien says:

          Yes, just like SuccessfulBuild:

          “It really gets goes to the fact that people like you, skylien, and the other commenters here, have a hatred of freedom.”

          “As a Mises [dot org “anarcho”-capitalist totalitarian, skylien, you advocate a system where a handful of property owners could force people to be their slaves and acquire more wealth solely based on the fact that they own the property.”


          • Dan says:

            This is the same guy that said taxes prevent slavery. Successfulbuild is good for some laughs.

            • skylien says:

              Right. Though I am sure he wants the best for the people… yet he cannot believe that we want too…

  8. Bob Murphy says:

    Daniel, the first of Bryan’s questions (on the second list) questions the very structure of the federal government, at least since the ruling on judicial review. So you’re saying you agree with Bryan that the federal government should be scrapped? Wow.

    And you’re for the total abolition of welfare?

    And you don’t like presidents being able to wage wars?

    You can’t possibly tell us that you are voting for Obama and think he’s not half-bad, and then claim to be basically in agreement with Caplan on policies from his second list. Come on.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      To be clear, I get what point you are making here Daniel, in the abstract. Yes, there could exist a non-libertarian for whom Caplan’s second list of questions isn’t very good. (E.g. a Quaker who wanted a theocracy probably wouldn’t bat an eye at Caplan’s second list.) I’m just saying, that hypothetical non-libertarian isn’t you.

    • Christopher says:

      So you’re saying you agree with Bryan that the federal government should be scrapped?

      That doesn’t seem to be the point. He is saying that he agrees with Caplan that all these things (unjust laws, unjust wars) are regrettable. And pretty much all of the non libertarians I know would agree that the second list describes horrible scenarios that shouldn’t happen.
      Daniel’s problem seems to be that he doesn’t understand how these questions make the case for a libertarian society. And the answer is quite simple: they don’t. They aren’t meant to. They are meant to show that one particular argument against Libertarianism is flawed – nothing else.

  9. Tel says:

    What if government pinkie promises, solemnly swears and signs on the dotted line to deliver a continuous flow of material goods, but then finds itself unable to do so? What then?

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