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Arguing Against “Libertarianism”

Summary:
1.0 Introduction By "libertarianism", I mean propertarianism, a right-wing doctrine. In this post, I want to outline some ways of arguing against this set of ideas. (On this topic, Mike Huben has much more extensive resources than I can allude to.) 2.0 On Individual Details I like to use certain policy ideas as a springboard for arguments that they have no coherent justification in economic theory. Unsurprisingly, the outdated nonsense market fundamentalists push does not have empirical support either. I provide some bits and pieces here. Consider the reduction or elimination of minimum wages. More generally, consider advocacy of labor market flexibility. I like to provide numerical examples in which firms, given a level and composition of net output, want to employ more workers at

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1.0 Introduction

By "libertarianism", I mean propertarianism, a right-wing doctrine. In this post, I want to outline some ways of arguing against this set of ideas. (On this topic, Mike Huben has much more extensive resources than I can allude to.)

2.0 On Individual Details

I like to use certain policy ideas as a springboard for arguments that they have no coherent justification in economic theory. Unsurprisingly, the outdated nonsense market fundamentalists push does not have empirical support either. I provide some bits and pieces here.

Consider the reduction or elimination of minimum wages. More generally, consider advocacy of labor market flexibility. I like to provide numerical examples in which firms, given a level and composition of net output, want to employ more workers at higher wages. Lots of empirical work suggests wages and employment are not and cannot be determined by supply and demand.

Lately, I have been developing examples of international trade. (I think these examples need work when produced means of production can be traded.) In these numerical examples, the firms in each country specialize as in the theory of comparative advantage. That is, they produce those commodities that are relatively cheaper to produce domestically. I explicitly show processes for producing capital goods and assume that capitalists obtain accounting profits. Numeric examples demonstrate that a country can be worse off with trade than under autarky. Their production possibilities frontier (PPF) is moved inward. So much for the usual opposition to tariffs.

Some like to talk about the marginal productivity theory of distribution. But no such valid entity exists. I suppose one could read empirical data on the distribution of income and wealth and mobility as support for this, although others might talk about monopsony and market power.

No natural rate of interest exists. So some sort of market rate would not be an attractor, if it wasn't for the meddling of Jerome Powell and the Federal Reserve. As I understand it, this conclusion also has empirical support.

A whole host of examples arises in modeling preferences. I do not think I have previously mentioned, for example, Sen's demonstration of The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal.

One can point out sources of market failure from a mainstream perspective. I think of issues arising from externalities, information asymmetries, principal agent problems, and so on. As I understand it, John Quiggin is popularizing such arguments in his upcoming Economics in Two Lessons.

3.0 Arguments From Legitimate Authority

I like to cite literature propertarians claim as their own. One set of arguments is of their experts advocating policies on the other side. For example, in The Road to Serfdom, Hayek advocates a basic income and social security. He says his disagreement with Keynes is a technical argument about whether fiscal or monetary policy can stabilize the economy and prevent business cycles, not a matter of the fundamental principles he is arguing about in the book. Adam Smith argues for workers and against businessmen, projectors, and speculators. He doesn't expect rational behavior, as economists define such. Among scholars, those building on Marx could with more right wear Smith ties than Chicago-school economists.

A second set of arguments from authority provide a reductio ad absurdum. One points out that propertarian authorities seem to end up praising authoritarians and fascists or adopting racists as allies. I think of Von Mises praising Mussolini, Friedman's advice to Pinochet, and Hayek's support for the same. The entanglement between propertarianism and racists in the USA has been self-evident at least since Barry Goldwater's run for president. I might also mention Ron Paul's newsletters.

4.0 Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Instead of arguing about the validity of certain supposed propositions, one might argue about why some come to hold them. Why do so many argue against their concrete material interests and for the whims of malefactors of great wealth? In social psychology, one can point to research on the need for system justification and on the just world fallacy. Marxists can draw on Lukács' analysis of reification or Gramsci's understanding of civil society and hegemony.

I also like how doubt is cast on the doctrines just by noting their arguments are easily classified as falling into a couple of categories. Propertarians can be seen as hopping back and forth from, on one foot, justifying their ideas on consequential, utilitarian, or efficiency grounds to, on the other foot, justifying it based on supposed deductions from first principles. So when you attack one argument, they can revert to the other, without ever admitting defeat. (Am I stealing from John Holbo here? From Cosma Shalizi?)

Albert Hirschman classified arguments into three categories: perversity, futility, and jeopardy. One could always say, "I agree with your noble goals", but:

  • Your implementation will lead to the opposite.
  • What you are attempting is to change something that is so fundamental (e.g., human nature) that it cannot succeed.
  • Your attempt risks losing something else we value (e.g., self-reliance, innovation, liberty etc.)

If the arguments are always so simply classified, they cannot be about empirical reality, one might think.

5.0 Conclusion

None of the above addresses issues of political philosophy that propertarians may think central to their views. I do not talk about what roles of the state are legitimate, the source of authority in law, the false dichotomy of state versus markets, negative liberties and positive liberties, or the exertion of private power by means of the ownership of property. In short, this approach is probably irritating to propertarians. I'm good with that.

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