The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center has posted an insightful response to my critique of his essay blaming libertarian skepticism of democracy for many of the flaws of the present-day Republican right (and, by extension, American politics generally). In my earlier post, I argued that Wilkinson was wrong to associate libertarian skepticism towards democracy with property rights absolutism, and also greatly overestimates the influence of this aspect of libertarian thought on current Republican politics. In his response, Wilkinson contends that I misunderstood significant aspects of his position, and continues to defend both his view of libertarianism and his analysis of its influence on the Republicans. While I am sorry I misunderstood some parts of Wilkinson's analysis, I continue to disagree with him on both of these issues.
In his response, Wilkinson relies heavily on his definition of "libertarianism" as incorporating an absolutist view of property rights, as opposed to "classical liberalism," which seeks to put tight limits on government, but does not hold that property rights must be absolute. I admit I underestimated the importance of this distinction to Wilkinson's argument. If the only true "libertarians" are property rights absolutists, Wilkinson is able to exclude the vast majority of thinkers who are usually considered libertarian, including Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, James Buchanan, and Richard Epstein (by far the most influential living libertarian property rights scholar).
He also ends up excluding all the people he himself identified as notable recent libertarian skeptics of democracy: Bryan Caplan, Jason Brennan, and myself, none of whom are property rights absolutists. For reasons noted in my earlier post, such a definition would even exclude Robert Nozick, generally considered the most influential libertarian political philosopher of the last fifty years. A definition of libertarianism that excludes Friedman, Hayek, Buchanan,and Nozick is, at the very least, idiosyncratic. It is also a definition that includes only a very narrow range of thinkers, which makes it quite unlikely that this small group had a great influence on American politics of the sort Wilkinson ascribes to it.
Wilkinson even goes so far as to claim (quoting political philosopher Samuel Freeman) that "libertarianism," as he defines it, is not even a type of liberalism at all, but rather a subset of "feudalism," because like feudalism, it "rejects the idea, essential to liberalism, that political power is a public power, to be impartially exercised for the common good." This strikes me as implausible, even applied to those libertarians who are property rights absolutists. The latter (with the possible exception of anarchists, who advocate the complete abolition of government) still maintain that political power should be impartial and that it should be exercised for the common good. They simply believe that political power should control a much smaller portion of society than adherents of other ideologies do. Liberals of all stripes, however, believe that some issues should be off-limits to the government. Property-rights absolutists merely have an especially expansive view of those constraints. They may well be wrong about that. But they are not meaningfully comparable to feudalists.
By defining libertarianism in an implausibly narrow way, Wilkinson is able to buttress the logical coherence of his interpretation of that ideology. But he does so at the price of greatly weakening any possible claim that it has had much influence. It is especially hard to claim that libertarianism has had any great influence on attitudes towards democracy if your definition of libertarianism excludes those libertarian thinkers who (Buchanan, Hayek, and—more recently, people like Brennan and Caplan) who have written most extensively about democracy's flaws and had the biggest impact on debates over democratic theory.
Wilkinson unintentionally further muddies the waters by claiming that Brennan, Caplan, and I are "culturally libertarian" even if our thought is not, in the same way that some atheists are "culturally" Catholic or Mormon. This strikes me as incoherent. Regardless of their "cultural" origins, these individuals and their works do not fit Wilkinson's narrow definition of "libertarian" and therefore cannot be used to buttress his argument for the importance of libertarian skepticism about democracy. If, on the other hand, these authors do qualify as "libertarian," after all, then that undercuts Wilkinson's claim that libertarian skepticism about democracy is closely linked to property rights rights absolutism.
In his reply, Wilkinson suggests that "Somin is wrong to say that I'm arguing that property rights absolutism drives libertarian democracy skepticism. On the contrary, I'm arguing that classical liberal democracy skepticism drove the adoption of property rights absolutism, which launched libertarianism as a distinct ideology." I appreciate the correction. But it does not change the fact that 1) property rights absolutism is not the ideology of most of those thinkers usually considered libertarian (including those who have had the most influence on debates over democracy), and 2) it is not the major determinant of present-day skepticism about democracy either among self-described libertarians or the non-libertarian political right. Moreover, I am skeptical of his claim that property-rights absolutists adopted such views because of skepticism about democracy, as opposed to vice versa. They themselves generally argue that property-rights absolutism is a logical outgrowth of theories of natural rights and individual autonomy.
In the most defensible part of his reply, Wilkinson focuses on two libertarian property-rights absolutists who did have at least some substantial impact: Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. He notes that a number of Republican legislators (including House Speaker Paul Ryan) are admirers of Rand, and that Rothbard had an influence on Robert Nozick and some other influential libertarians. As I explained in my earlier post, it is far from clear how much Ryan is really a follower of Ayn Rand. He supports a great many policies that she abhorred. But the key point here is that there is little if any evidence to show that Ryan and the other politicians mentioned endorse Rand's property-rights absolutism, and a good deal of evidence that they do not (in so far as they support many policies that infringe property rights in ways she would have opposed).
Rand was (and still is, long after her death) a best-selling author whose books are read by millions. But few of them endorse her property-rights absolutism, as opposed to her general admiration for free markets and entrepreneurship. The same is true of Rothbard, whose influence was confined to a much narrower sphere. Few of the noteworthy libertarians influenced by Rothbard endorsed his property-rights absolutism, as opposed to a more general advocacy of strict limitations on government, which he shared with people that Wilkinson would classify as "classical liberal."
Wilkinson also links Rothbard to current GOP populism by way of his advocacy of an alliance with right-wing populists in the early 1990s. Like Wilkinson, I am no fan of this awful part of Rothbard's record. But it is important to remember that this came long after the period when Rothbard had a significant intellectual influence on other libertarians (which was mostly in the 1960s and 1970s). During much of that era, Rothbard actually advocated a political alliance with the radical left. Moreover, Rothbard's later "paleolibertarian" stance was largely the result of his (faulty) judgment on where libertarians might be able to find political allies, not a claim that right-wing populism is somehow a natural outgrowth of libertarian ideas.
More generally, nothing in Wilkinson's reply refutes my key point that today's GOP is actually moving away from libertarian ideas towards endorsement of right-wing populism and extensive government spending and regulation, and that property-rights absolutism has very little influence in GOP circles. That makes it very hard to blame libertarian ideas for the GOP's present flaws.
The GOP's recent turn towards right-wing populism has actually increased tensions between libertarians and Republicans, with the result that, in the 2016 election, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson got 3.25% of the national vote, more than three times the previous record for the party's nominee. Most of the new Johnson voters are people who previously tended to support the GOP, but were alienated by the rise of big-government populism epitomized by Donald Trump. This is yet another sign that the present GOP is moving away from libertarianism rather than towards it, and that it makes little sense to blame the latter for the dangerous tendencies of the former.
I end with this point from my earlier post, which Wilkinson has not so far addressed. Far from being a major cause of our present troubles, libertarian skepticism about democracy can be a valuable part of the antidote:
The biggest flaw of the current GOP is not their supposed hostility to majoritarian democracy, but almost the exact opposite: their embrace of a populism that appeals to some of the worst instincts of the less knowledgeable part of their constituency. Donald Trump's 2016 campaign strategy was in many ways a textbook example of the exploitation of the very sort of political ignorance that libertarians have long warned us against….
Overcoming our current political pathologies will not be easy. But libertarian critiques of democracy can be a useful part of the solution. For example, limiting and decentralizing government power can help reduce the harm caused by voter ignorance and prejudice—including the xenophobic populist nationalism that Wilkinson rightly fears. When people "vote with their feet" in the private sector or in a federal system, they tend to make better-informed and less prejudiced decisions than at the ballot box.There is much we can do to expand opportunities for foot voting, particularly for the poor.
Political decentralization of the sort championed by libertarians can also help defuse the fear and partisan hatred that make ignorance and bias an especially grave menace today. One need not be a full-blown libertarian to recognize that libertarian concerns about democracy have some merit….
UPDATE: I should note that I agree with Wilkinson's point that ideologies often have indirect as well as direct influence on people. In many cases, we may not even be aware of such effects when they impact us. But Wilkinson presents precious little evidence that libertarian property-rights absolutism (as distinct from other libertarian ideas, which Wilkinson describes as "classical liberal") has had a major impact on American politics, indirect or otherwise. I agree with him that such an effect is theoretically possible. But it is not supported by the evidence he presents, which amounts to little more than proof that some prominent Republican are fans of Ayn Rand and wish to cut government spending (on which latter point they are at odds with the dominant tendency in the party). Evidence that they want to cut taxes is even less probative, given that antitax sentiment is common in a wide range of center-right political movements.