The Volokh Conspiracy

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Andrew Koppelman's Half-Way Hayekianism

My contribution to the Balkinization symposium on Andrew Koppelman's new book, Burning Down the House.


As Ilya noted, Balkinization is hosting a symposium on Andrew Koppelman's new book, Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed.  This book is a critique of libertarian political theory and its impact on contemporary public policy, with a particular focus on the more "radical" libertarians, such as Murray Rothbard and Robert Nozick, and a partial embrace of the less dogmatic classical liberalism of F.A. Hayek.

Ilya previewed his contribution here. My own (belated) response is now posted as well. Here's a taste:

Andrew Koppelman's Burning Down the House is a simultaneously engaging and frustrating book. It offers a refreshing center-left appreciation F.A. Hayek and provides insightful critiques of more rigid and radical libertarian thinkers. Yet it also strangely resists serious consideration of the broader application of Hayekian insights and is too quick to assume a conscientious Hayekian would be part of the today's center-left coalition.

Part of what is so refreshing about Koppelman's book is that his appreciation of Hayekian insights is so rare in center-left discourse. He understands that liberals should be more  concerned with poverty than inequality. Market-driven increases in standards of living around the world have been a boon for humanity, increasing lifespans and reducing human suffering. Moreover, there can be no meaningful wealth redistribution if there is not sufficient wealth to redistribute. Koppelman  also appreciates that the benefits of markets are not purely economic.  "In a diverse society, markets facilitate peaceful cooperation among people who radically disagree about fundamental values," he observes. (175) As a consequence, the market "stimulates not only competition but empathy." (176) . . .

Although Koppelman clearly prefers Hayek to the likes of Rothbard, he does not offer Hayek unqualified praise. Some of his criticisms are more persuasive than others however. He charges that Hayek has an "excessively crude understanding" of private property (18). Apparently Hayek's understanding is too "limited" because he lacks a full understanding of all they ways the state may recognize or structure such rights. (18)  It seems to me that it is Koppelman who is missing the point, for the contours of private property are not infinitely malleable if it is to facilitate a Hayekian market order and safeguard liberty.

Just as a central planner lacks sufficient information to direct a modern economy, property rights cannot be simply "designed" from the ground up to generate particular distributional consequences. Transferable property rights are the foundation of private markets, and thus are essential to the Hayekian order Koppelman rightly celebrates for generating wealth and prosperity. It is one thing to levy taxes to provide for public goods. It is quite another to treat property rights as mere "conventions" that can be "designed with their likely distributional consequences in mind." (98) Property rights without a solid core are much like the markets without prices against which Hayek inveighed. Indeed, the market discovery process Hayek described is dependent upon a system of secure and transferable property rights. . . .

Koppelman wants to argue that "the standard justification for most of the regulation we have now is Hayekian" (46) He identifies the pervasiveness of "externalities" to support this claim, but then turns around to acknowledge that "This argument will not, however, necessarily justify the regulations that actually exist." (49) He admits that "in any specific area of policy, imperfect markets need to be compared with imperfect government." (49) This is because "whatever the defects of an unregulated market, the effects of regulation are sometimes worse." (50) Precisely so, but then Koppelman cannot resist making broad pronouncements about the terrible consequences of limiting regulatory authority and magisterial benefits of expansive regulation. . . .

In short, a truly Hayekian perspective would require far more humility about regulatory interventions than Koppelman evinces.

You may read the whole thing here.

In a separate post, Koppelman responds to all of his commentators.