Archive | August 30, 2010

Three Shalt Thou Count

The debates in the comments section of my Koch post have gotten me thinking about the different ways in which vulgar libertarianism operates. I think there are three.

Big Business

1) First, there’s the use of libertarian slogans as mere rhetorical covering for corporatist policies. This kind of vulgar libertarianism is standard Republican territory, and in this case “vulgar” acts as an alienating adjective (scroll halfway down); this sort of vulgar libertarianism is not libertarianism at all, any more than counterfeit money is money, a decoy duck is a duck, or a fake Rembrandt is a Rembrandt.

2) Next, there’s the mistake of thinking that libertarian principles justify various big-business-favourable features of the present economy that are actually the result of government privilege rather than market factors (or are so to a greater degree than is realised). This mistake is often made by people who sincerely advocate libertarian policies that would in fact (if we left-libertarians are right) undermine big business more than such advocates realise – and who would continue to advocate them even if they realised this. In this kind of vulgar libertarianism, “vulgar” isn’t alienating; the policies being advocated are genuinely libertarian, but those advocating them have blundered into making their product look less appealing (to ordinary people) than it actually is. In such cases vulgar libertarianism is less like a decoy duck than like a sick duck.

3) The third kind of vulgar libertarianism is a bit more complex. Here the problem is that even if one is advocating the right policies, mistaken views about the likely results of those policies can lead one into mistakes about what counts as a reasonable transitional step toward liberty. For example, suppose that I overestimate the extent to which Megacorp’s success is due to market factors rather than government privilege, and so I mistakenly predict that Megacorp will do much better in a freed market than it is doing now (whereas in fact it would do much worse) . Then I will tend to regard a policy that greatly lowers Megacorp’s tax burden without much lowering anyone else’s as a step in the right direction, and will be inclined to advocate it – whereas if I recognised the extent to which Megacorp is the beneficiary of direct and indirect subsidies at the expense of ordinary taxpayers, I might instead regard the policy as an increased subsidy. Thus conflationist beliefs lead to corporatist practice. (This would be an instance of application thickness.) By contrast with case (2), then, I end up endorsing objectively corporatist policies in addition to libertarian ones; though in contrast with case (1) the libertarian commitments remain sincere. Here the duck is so sick that it’s starting to mutate; how mutated the duck has to get before it no longer counts as a duck is a tricky question.

The boundaries among these three varieties aren’t hard and fast; perhaps they’re best thought of as regions of a spectrum, with (1) and (2) at opposite ends and (3) in the middle. Part of what I’ve been arguing in the Koch case is that it’s a mistake to infer from the Kochs’ not being at (2) that they must be at (1); I find a position closer to (3) at least as plausible a reading, especially given Charles Koch’s declaration that his recent activism is driven by a desire to see some concrete social change in his lifetime. (Admittedly, to the extent that the Kochs’ own economic interests have helped smooth their path from (2) to (3), their (3)-ness may be classified as a bit further toward (1) than would otherwise be the case.) I also find (3) a plausible diagnosis of some libertarian anti-immigration arguments.

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