The Volokh Conspiracy

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Balkinization Symposium on Andrew Koppelman's "Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed"

Participants include Jonathan Adler, Richard Epstein, Christina Mulligan, and myself, among others.


The Balkinization website is currently hosting a symposium on Northwestern University law Professor Andrew Koppelman's recent book Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed. There are already contributions up by Richard EpsteinChristina Mulligan, James Hackney,  and myself, among others. More will be posted in the coming days, including pieces by VC co-blogger Jonathan Adler, Stanley Fish, and Jennifer Burns.

I have many reservations about this book. But it's hard to deny that it has helped kick off a debate about the strengths and weaknesses of modern libertarianism. And Yale Law School Prof. Jack Balkin has—with Koppelman's help—assembled an impressively diverse crew of commentators for the symposium.

Here are some excerpts from my contribution:

Andrew Koppelman's Burning Down the House makes some worthwhile points, and I agree with more of it than I would have expected. But it is also something of a missed opportunity. Koppelman attempts a critical analysis of libertarian political thought and its impact on public policy. But he overlooks major aspects of both.

Let's start with a few points of agreement. Early in the book, Koppelman recognizes that free markets have made enormous contributions to human freedom and welfare… He also notes the validity of F.A. Hayek's classic critique of economic central planning, on the ground that governments lack the knowledge needed to plan economic production competently. Perhaps most strikingly, he points out that many on the left fail to recognize the contradiction between their support for diversity and their sympathy for socialism; the latter is likely to stifle the former. As Koppelman puts it, "[m]any on the left repudiate capitalism because they don't grasp the anti-socialist logic of their present views…"

Koppelman is also right to point out that some prominent advocates of libertarianism – most notably Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard – have made a variety of weak and sometimes even downright silly arguments. Many of these weaknesses have been covered before, including by other libertarians. But Koppelman's listing of them is particularly helpful and accessible….

Sadly, Koppelman's relatively thorough dissection of Rand and Rothbard is coupled with neglect of more recent and more sophisticated thinkers. As a result, he overlooks crucial ways in which libertarians have addressed many of the points he raises. When it comes to effects on public policy, he overlooks many of the areas where libertarian ideas have had their biggest impact, while greatly overstating their effect in a few fields where he finds it particularly objectionable…..

This focus weakens many parts of the book. Here, I cover just a few examples related to my own areas of expertise.

To my mind, the Koppelman's single most significant omission is the neglect of modern libertarian critiques of democratic government, particularly those focused on voter ignorance and bias. After all, regulation and redistribution by democratic processes is the principal left-liberal alternative to libertarianism.

Prominent libertarian scholars such as Bryan Caplan and Jason Brennan have shown that the vast majority of voters are both ignorant of basic facts about politics and government, and highly biased in their evaluation of what they do know….

If the policies of democratic governments are heavily influenced by voter ignorance and bias, the quality of those policies is likely to be greatly reduced. This poses a particularly serious challenge for Koppelman and others who call for carefully calibrated policies that deftly balance competing considerations….

Another vital branch of libertarian scholarship that Koppelman overlooks is the study of private-sector solutions to public goods problems and externalities. This has been a major focus of libertarian thought at least since Nobel Prize-winning economist R.H. Coase's pathbreaking work in the 1960s…..

Libertarianism's supposed neglect of public goods and externalities problems is a major theme of Koppelman's book. Yet he does not seriously consider the extensive modern libertarian literature on these very issues.

Finally, despite his discussion of property rights focused on the classic writings of John Locke and Robert Nozick, Koppelman also overlooks the vast bulk of modern libertarian property scholarship….

Koppelman's excessively narrow focus also shows up in his discussion of libertarian impacts on policy, where he stresses the supposed effects of categorical rejection of redistribution, and climate denialism. He claims that "the Republican Party became increasingly Rothbardian: reflexively opposed to all taxation and regulation."

In reality, even in its most libertarian-friendly period under Reagan, the GOP never came close to rejecting "all taxation and regulation." At most, it advocated tighter restrictions on these policies.

In its more recent Trumpian "national conservative" incarnation, the Party has embraced large-scale protectionism, industrial planning, and massive migration restrictions….

The exaggerated focus on redistribution and climate change leads Koppelman to overlook multiple policy areas where libertarian ideas have had much greater impact. Examples include Milton Friedman's key role in the abolition of the draft, his remarkably successful advocacy of anti-inflationary monetary policy (adopted by numerous central banks), the rise of school choice in the US and Europe (another idea effectively popularized by Friedman), and the extensive role of libertarians in promoting stronger constitutional protection for property rights….

None of the modern libertarian ideas discussed above is unassailable, and most have generated significant counter-arguments…..

But sustained critical engagement with modern libertarianism cannot neglect these issues. It has to address the best of modern libertarian thought, and systematically consider those issues where libertarian ideas have had their greatest impact.