Will Wilkinson attacks libertarianism again

This started as a comment to this blog entry about a dispute between Jonah Goldberg and Will Wilkinson.

Goldberg claims:

[I]t seems to me that the stimulus debate clearly puts the lie to the idea that liberals and libertarians can see eye to eye on the large questions of political economy, at least for the foreseeable future. The first principles simply aren’t aligned.

Wilkinson responds:

I’m not that interested in short-term partisan politics. I’m interested in a much longer-term project.

That sidesteps Goldberg's claim rather than dealing with it directly. Goldberg's claim is about "first principles" and therefore not about "short-term partisan politics". He believes that what is happening now tells us something about "first principles", whereas Wilkinson, apparently, does not. So the first problem with Wilkinson's answer is that he doesn't deal with Goldberg's claim.

The second problem with Wilkinson's answer is that reality is nothing but a sequence of "now"s, and his unwillingness to accept what is happening now as evidence hints that he may be impervious to evidence from any particular "now" (why, after all, reject just the evidence from today's "now"), and therefore impervious to evidence full-stop.

Wilkinson writes:

The stimulus bill vexes me not at all. It’s what you’d predict knowing the current extent of Democratic power, the opportunity that the perception of crisis creates, and the composition of the Democratic coalition. As a student of James M. Buchanan, I’m no romantic about democracy.

but then writes:

what is it about the era of George W. Bush that makes Jonah think that conservatives and libertarians see eye to eye on the large questions of political economy? I understand it is now politically expedient for Republicans to oppose whatever Obama is trying to do. But, frankly, the recent performance of the Republicans in Congress has been pathetic, managing to do little more than fight to get a bit more for their constituencies and a bit less for the majority’s.

Wilkinson has just got done excusing the behavior of Democrats as the predictable outcome of the forces that James Buchanan talked about (as opposed to being a reflection of their first principles), but then he proceeds to identify conservative ideology with what the Republicans did when they were in power. That is a double standard.

Wilkinson says about libertarians:

And the most common forms of libertarianism are, I think, still pretty well shot through with conservative reflexes bred by the long Cold War alliance between libertarians and the right. For many libertarians, hating the left just feels like home.

Never mind the new New Deal, for that matter never mind the old New Deal. Never mind that American liberalism is largely defined by its canonization of FDR and its ideological approval of such things as the New Deal and the Great Society programs. Libertarians are anti-leftist because of reflexes (implied: unthinking reflexes - a reflex is, after all, pretty much defined by lack of cognition) left over from the Cold War. Any description of an ideology as largely a reflex (and an obsolete fossil of one at that) is an attack on the ideology. Hence the title I have chosen for this entry.

Wilkinson briefs us on his political position:

I want to use this time of ferment to work on developing the missing option in American politics: an authentically liberal governing philosophy that understands that limited government, free markets, a culture of tolerance, and a sound social safety net are the best means to better lives.

A lot of libertarians are going to choke on "a sound social safety net", but Wilkinson's account implies that this is because they have "conservative reflexes bred by the long Cold War alliance between libertarians and the right." Here's a better explanation: opposition to a "social safety net" (by which I do not take Wilkinson to mean private charity) follows from the nonaggression principle.

Furthermore a lot of libertarians are going to wonder what to make of Wilkinson's call for "a culture of tolerance" not because they are personally intolerant but because "tolerance" does not follow from the nonaggression principle - that is, it falls outside the purview of the nonaggression principle.

The nonaggression principle is a deeply entrenched obstacle to Wilkinson's attempt to portray the aspects of libertarianism which he disapproves of as unthinking obsolete contagion from a past alliance with "the right". He needs to discredit the nonaggression principle in order to carry his argument forward. Wilkinson has, unsurprisingly, attacked the nonaggression principle as follows:

Now it seems to me that non-coercion libertarians tend to reason backwards. You start with a list of kinds of action considered impermissible, struggle to classify them all instances of coercion, and then say that your philosophy is based on non-coercion and not on whatever principle (if there was one) that led you to try to include some classes of actions (that are not intuitively coercive) but not others (that seem pretty coercive) under the coercion rubric.

Wilkinson is here opening up the possibility that libertarianism (what Wilkinson here calls "non-coercion libertarianism") is not truly principled, but rather is really a hodgepodge of different ideas - some of them unthinking reflexes. (Granted, Wilkinson uses the term "non-coercion" rather than "non-aggression" but what he's trying to do is not merely to question one of several formulations of libertarian principle, but to undermine the very idea that libertarianism - i.e. "non-coercion libertarianism" - is genuinely principled.)

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non coercion

For "non coercion" to do the necessary work one needs a concept of rights. "Coercion" does not have meaning independent of "property", and "right": If Bob and Carol come into conflict, how does one tell if Bob is coercing Carol, or Carol coercing Bob? Well, they came into conflict because of something one of them wants to do. Suppose it is something Carol wants to do and attempts to do. Then one has to ask "Does Carol have the right to do this?"

Usually it is pretty clear if someone has the right to do something, and in the examples of supposed ambiguity that Wilkinson invokes (fraud and emotional pressure) it is perfectly clear who has the right to do what, whereupon the non coercion principle can do the work.

So Wilkinson is right in the sense that "non coercion" cannot do the work all by itself, for every concept is connected to every other, but he is wrong to claim that "non coercion" is just a post hoc rationalization for a grab bag of beliefs chosen on other grounds.

The great benefit of the non coercion principle is that it focuses your attention on actual violence - the rest of society should not get involved except in the sort of conflicts where people would otherwise start shooting at each other. Coercion is where the rubber meets the road.

Abandon the principle, and the door is open for the government to do all manner of supposedly good things, which brings us to the central paradox of democracy: It is always in the interests of a majority of voters that any one particular matter be decided by the state rather than individuals, for each particular matter, but never in the interests of a majority of voters that all particular matters, or even many particular matters, be decided by the state. Thus small incremental changes, even with a fully rational and well informed electorate, will always tend in the direction of socialism, artificial famine, terror, and mass murder.

Bryan Caplan emphasizes that the voters are rationally irrational, while others focus on rational ignorance. But it is far from clear that we would be better off with rational and well informed voting.

Let us suppose, for example, the question is whether people should brush their teeth, and what kind of toothpaste they should use. If we banned minority choices on this issue, totaling say forty five percent of the population, and anyone inappropriately brushing or failing to brush his teeth got boiled in oil, then the 55% majority would have cheaper and more conveniently available toothpaste. But if we repeat for each and every issue, then everyone is part of a 45% minority which is banned.

Thus the only way to build a coalition to resist statism is a radical coalition - which strategy, however has failed dismally, giving us the party of 0.28%.

Since democracy is the problem, and various cures for this problem are not working, the solution is to treat all forms of government alike, as incurably hostile and inimical, and focus on avoidance and resistance - the cypherpunk solution. The cypherpunk solution, as a political movement, is even deader than the libertarian party at the moment, but as an economic force is going from strength to strength, with cash a rapidly rising proportion of M1, and total value of gold in circulation rising in relation to M0.