If libertarianism is so right, and if "markets work," why is it not obviously winning out in either the political marketplace or the marketplace of ideas? This is a question raised recently by Jerry Taylor, chief of the Niskanen Center, who concludes there must be something seriously deficient in either libertarian ideas or how most libertarians attempt to sell or actuate them.
George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan thinks that there's a lot of misunderstanding to unpack in that formulation. (Disclosure: both Taylor and Caplan are old pals of mine.)
Here's the thing, says Caplan:
Most markets work well, but the market for ideas doesn't. Why not? Because ideas have massive externalities. The market for pollution works poorly because strangers bear almost all the cost of your pollution. The market for ideas, similarly, works poorly because strangers bear almost all the cost of your irrationality. This is the heart of my argument in The Myth of the Rational Voter.
2′. Truth doesn't largely win out in a well-functioning market for ideas, because consumers primarily seek not truth, but comfort and entertainment….
Like Jerry, I reject dogmatic libertarianism. And I'm all for better marketing of libertarian ideas. But no matter how true libertarianism is, we shouldn't expect it to be popular. Why not? Because it tells people an ocean of things they deeply resent…..Treating its verdict as a test of truth is a terrible mistake.
People can be won over to libertarian thought by the more traditional means of the existing libertarian movement. My 2007 book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement tells the tale of how that happened to likely hundreds of thousands in America, via books and policy papers and journals of political opinion (like the one whose website you are now enjoying).
My 2012 book Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired was, I thought at the time, a tale of how that slow walk to possible victory happened in a more concentrated way in the context of electoral politics. No doubt, a lot has happened in the political market since then to make it seem I overestimated (based on the best data I had at the time, the hundreds of Paul fans I was able to meet and communicate with in reality and online) the extent to which the mass of 2.1 million 2012 Paul voters were picking up the same libertarianism the Ron Paul on the stump and in his bestselling books during the campaign was selling.
That said, policy entrepreneurs as Jerry Taylor is trying to be with Niskanen Center or political entrepreneurs of any variety should certainly keep experimenting as they see fit to discover what methods or techniques might make the world a freer place, in ideas or in actuality. (My suspicion is the only one right answer is that there is no one right answer to argumentative techniques or policy change styles.)
But there might be less reason for utter hopelessness than you might guess if you insist on viewing political or idea marketplaces as efficient mechanisms for reaching truth.