Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Robert Frank and Libertarian Beliefs

My exchange with Robert Frank over his NYT piece seems to have come to at least a temporary halt. Unless he is going to concede that I am right or I am going to concede that he is, neither of which seems likely any time soon, there doesn't seem to be a lot more to say—although if he wants to respond to my most recent post in the series he is of course welcome to do so.

I thought, however, that it would be worth exploring a different feature of his argument—his view of what libertarians believe, offered as part of his argument for why libertarians ought to support governmental income redistribution. Frank writes:

"Society’s income distribution, [libertarians] argue, should reflect as closely as possible what people would earn in unregulated private markets."

Off hand, I cannot remember ever hearing a libertarian make that argument. A better version, later in the piece, is:

"Enlightened libertarians believe that the best social institutions mimic the agreements people would have negotiated among themselves, if free exchange had been practical."

Libertarians differ widely among themselves on both the basis for views and their implications, so the quote is probably true of some libertarians and certainly false of others—unless it is taken to exclude as unenlightened any libertarian who disagrees with it. But it is worth asking to what degree Frank is correctly describing the implications of the more common grounds for libertarian beliefs. Consider three different alternatives, corresponding to three common approaches to political philosophy.

1. Natural Rights: Probably the most popular position among the hard core of self-identified libertarians, some of whom make opposition to the initiation of force the defining characteristic of libertarianism. For most or all of them, both of Frank's statements are false. Following arguments along the lines of Robert Nozick's distinction between desert and entitlement, they hold that what matters is not what you end up with but how you got it. Whether or not the rich would have willingly given money to the poor in a zero transaction cost world is irrelevant to the legitimacy of coerced transfers by the state.

2. Social Contract: The contract is a metaphorical one. What people would have agreed to if ... is a common basis for deducing it, which makes this a plausible basis from which to defend the position Frank is arguing for. The only problem is that it is not a position popular with self-identified libertarians, few of whom are Rawlsians.

3. Consequentialism: The argument is that libertarian institutions lead to results that most people would prefer to the results of alternative institutions. This is the position I have usually argued from; while I have some sympathy with the moral intuitions underlying the natural rights position I lack arguments to support those intuitions, so prefer to take other people's objectives as given and argue that my preferred institutions would better achieve them. Utilitarianism is one version of consequentialism, but not the only possible one.

From a consequentialist standpoint, Frank's position is at least plausible—how plausible depending on the degree to which one believes that free exchange in a zero transaction cost world would lead to the optimal consequences. It is worth noting, however, that there is no reason to expect it to lead to a utilitarian optimum, for reasons having to do with the difference between economic efficiency and maximum utility.

So far I have been considering the views of self-identified libertarians. The label may also be applied to the much larger number of people, perhaps as many as ten or twenty percent of the population, who support some increase in individual liberty and reduction in government power in both social and economic contexts. I expect that many of them would be sympathetic to the view that Frank expresses but that few would take it as an adequate definition of their position.

I do not know if Robert Frank, in writing what I quoted above, was thinking of statements of principle made by specific libertarians. If he is reading this, he may want to provide examples. My own feeling is that, while many libertarians would agree that his claim about what perfectly functioning markets would produce, if true, would provide some defense for government redistribution, few would regard it as a conclusive, or even adequate, defense—and that, of those few, most would be economists.

4 Comments:

At 3:27 AM, May 22, 2010, Anonymous David Tomlin said...

I do not know if Robert Frank, in writing what I quoted above, was thinking of statements of principle made by specific libertarians. If he is reading this, he may want to provide examples.

I think it would be good practice for any writer claiming that people of category A generally believe proposition X to cite at least one example of such a person expressing such a belief.

I've been reading about libertarianism since 1975, and I don't recall anything resembling what Robert Frank attributes to us.

This is the position I have usually argued from; while I have some sympathy with the moral intuitions underlying the natural rights position I lack arguments to support those intuitions, so prefer to take other people's objectives as given and argue that my preferred institutions would better achieve them.

At the risk of thread hijacking, I'd like to know if you have any thoughts about the flap over Rand Paul and lunch counter segregation.

Thinking about this in the last few days, I come to realize that the prohibition on private discrimination in 'public accommodation' is one of the few instances in which I believe consequentialism conflicts with my intuitions. It seems to me that this policy has been beneficial, but I still feel it is morally wrong and I would have to oppose it if it were a live issue.

 
At 11:44 PM, May 23, 2010, Blogger Josh said...

Thinking about discrimination legislation through an economic lens shows how "fairness" by libertarian standards still produces the best outcome.

What could a law do that outlawed discrimination?

It couldn't tell if people hired based on race. There are too many intangibles between candidates.

There is also no good way to tell if someone is fired for racist reasons. But this is where all the action comes from. Most litigation comes from minorities who are fired. This effectively raises the cost of hiring someone whose race is a minority and less get hired.

It's also bad business these days to have a "whites only" section. It would gather uproar and the business would fail through non-state solutions. The only way it would work is if nobody knew about it, and then it's not a big deal.

Freedom is a progressive concept. That's why we don't have to look to the past and compare current consequences of legislation to past hypothetical situations.

Cheers.

 
At 5:11 PM, May 24, 2010, Anonymous David Tomlin said...

It's also bad business these days to have a "whites only" section. It would gather uproar and the business would fail through non-state solutions. The only way it would work is if nobody knew about it, and then it's not a big deal.

This kind of assertion cries out for a quantifier. If you mean 'mostly', I agree. If you mean 'always', I'm very skeptical.

Few libertarians would argue that legalizing prostitution or the use of cocaine would cause these practices to disappear. But it seems many want to argue that discrimination in public accommodation is a special case, whose prevalence can be counted on to be stable at exactly zero.

If it were once again legal for businesses to hang up 'whites only' signs, I suspect that some of them, in certain neighborhoods, would find it profitable to do so. Some establishments might be for blacks only, or cater to all ethnicities except for whites. Some might be exclusive on some other basis than ethnicity. Maybe hanging at gay bars will become so trendy the gays have to lock the straights out.

But I digress.

For those offended by 'X only' signs, encountering even one, or experiencing uncertainty about the possibility of encountering one, is a degradation in the quality of life.

The ban works, and seems to have no ill effects. What would be the reason for lifting it?

 
At 11:13 AM, July 06, 2010, Blogger Matt said...

The reason for lifting it is that it has caused a fundamental redefinition of the meaning of the word "public" in the law.

The courthouse is public. City hall is public. The DMV is public. They belong to the government, are paid for with tax dollars, and occasionally citizens have no choice but to go there to transact some sort of business with the government agencies located within. It is entirely fitting that the law require equal access to such places for all persons having any plausible claim to legitimate business there.

A restaurant or bar is not public. It belongs to the owner, and no private citizen has any true _need_ to go there. He may _wish_ to go there, but a wish is a very different thing than a _right_.

A bar owner who says black people aren't welcome is, in my opinion, being an asshole. It would annoy me so much that I would choose, on that basis alone, not to patronize that bar. Many people feel likewise...probably enough to make the "no blacks" policy a commercial nonstarter. But either way, that's the morally justified response to being confronted with someone that one thinks is an asshole.

I wouldn't necessarily think, in the proposed hypothetical where going to gay bars gets so trendy that the owners feel the need to ban straights, that said owners are being assholes when they do it. I think there's a good argument that, in that situation, they'd be morally justified in making the choice. But the law doesn't allow that choice.

Freedom of association necessarily must include freedom of NON-association, or else it's a logical nullity.

 

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