March 29, 2016

Libertarian Principles, Niskanen, and Welfare Policy

The Niskanen Center is about to jump into welfare policy. Our approach is going to differ, however, from both standard libertarian and standard liberal thinking about poverty alleviation, social insurance, and economic mobility. Those differences will not be arbitrary, ad hoc, or improvisationally pragmatic. They’re differences of principle that reflect a coherent political philosophy.

Because this political philosophy is not yet widely recognized or understood, I think it’s worth offering some context for the principles that will animate our welfare policy work and make it different. The political philosophy that frames our thinking at Niskanen is not exactly new, but so far no other institution in the broad “freedom movement” has done much more than poke at it cautiously, to see if it’s dangerous. This school of thought has developed over the past decade or two from some of the best libertarian and classical liberal political theorists working today. David Schmidtz, John Tomasi, Jerry Gaus, Loren Lomasky, Jacob Levy, Jason Brennan, Matt Zwolinski, and many others have been reshaping libertarian thought from the inside in response to the most trenchant criticisms liberal political theorists have leveled against libertarian and classical liberal thinking. I’m proud to have played a small part in the development of this agenda as a program director at the Institute for Humane Studies, where I ran the graduate student summer seminar for a number of years—both serving up and imbibing the gospel of Schmidtz and Tomasi—and as a research fellow at the Cato Institute, where I wrote several papers in the vein of the new libertarianism, and promoted it as the editor of Cato Unbound.

There’s no good name for this new school of libertarian thought. Thanks to the blog launched by Matt Zwolinski (a Niskanen Center Adjunct Fellow and Advisory Board member), it’s sometimes known as “bleeding heart libertarianism.” By far the best survey of the new libertarianism, which I highly recommend, is John Tomasi and Jason Brennan’s entry on “Classical Liberalism” [.docx] in the Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy.

John and Jason call it “neoclassical liberalism,” and I’ll follow suit. I’ll grant that, from a branding standpoint, that phrase leaves much to be desired. But for now, it’s better than the other bad alternatives.

Political philosophies are one thing. The political institutions and movements that embody them (or don’t) are another thing altogether. Ideological movements and their institutions are path dependent and tend, sensibly enough, to resist ideas that modify their own foundations—even when those ideas are the product of the movement’s own brightest lights. Revised foundational ideas might be more intellectually solid than received doctrine, but they’re nevertheless bound to smack of heresy and to be regarded with suspicion, if not alarm, by those who have built their intellectual lives on old foundations. Even if a new idea is true—even if it’s just better in terms of its fit with the world, in terms of its adequacy to the phenomena—who knows what it ultimately implies? What if it implies something we don’t like?

The answer to that question is, of course, that if a compelling idea implies something you don’t like, you should consider changing your mind and start liking it. Alas, our minds don’t really work that way. Confirmation bias is one among many aspects of human nature civilized people strive, mostly unsuccessfully, to master.

Anyway, in a healthy intellectual culture, ideas are deepened and refined in the crucible of public deliberation. But ideological institutions, like individual human beings, tend to harden into orthodoxy or just sort of drift. It’s hard to teach old think tanks new tricks.

There is a superficial irony in the fact that the development of neoclassical liberalism—the ferment of standard libertarianism into its bleeding heart cousin—is in no small measure the product of a longstanding project of libertarian philanthropists to bring the gospel of individual rights, limited government, free markets, and peace to the heights of the ivory tower. The idea, heavily influenced by F.A. Hayek’s essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” has been to help the brightest liberty-minded students get the best possible academic training and give them the tools to succeed in the academy, putting them in a position to teach many hundreds of bright students, some of whom will go on to academic careers of their own, and in their turn teach hundreds of students, and so on, until libertarian ideas spread far and wide and find expression not only in scholarly journals but in bedrooms, board rooms, op-ed pages, committee hearings, voting booths, and on late-night TV.

Converting a niche political theory into cultural common sense, starting from the professoriate, is a long-game strategy. The neoclassical liberal refinement of the libertarian tradition is a sign that it’s working—sort of.

The difficulty is that ideas don’t simply replicate like spores—as Hayek would have been quick to point out. Ideas and moral norms mutate, generation after generation, in response to evidence, argument, and the pressures of history. So it’s basically inevitable that institutions pursuing a multigenerational strategy of ideological reproduction and propagation will, if the strategy is at all successful, eventually find themselves a bit out of sync with the intellectual fruits of their own strategic success.

The hitch in the strategy is that legacy institutions, rather than eagerly embracing the intellectual results of their own long-haul proselytizing initiatives, might be prone to regard them instead as threatening infections and deploy ideological antibodies to neutralize them. The solution to this problem is the development of new institutions built around the best hard-won revisions in orthodoxy.

Sticklers for ideological detail will say that the problem with this solution, as a solution, is that the whole point of this long-game exercise was to spread the so-called orthodox ideas, not replace them. So this project isn’t really the greatest strategy for those who want to spread a rigid body of political doctrine.

Ideology is monologue. It reproduces without mutation only through a combination of propaganda and rigid in-group/out-group enforcement. Truth-seeking intellectual engagement, however, is dialogue. Serious deliberation in a pluralistic liberal culture tends toward hybrid vigor. So if you help smart young libertarians go to the best grad programs in their fields, they will come face to face with the strongest arguments against their dearly-held views. Some will drop out, some will assimilate to the dominant paradigm, and others will ditch what’s false and build on what’s strong in their convictions. This sort of intellectual adaptation is a feature rather than a bug if the goal is to revive and enlarge the influence of an inclusive and inherently diverse liberal tradition, which is what Hayek had in mind.

Here’s how it actually works, when it does. David Schmidtz (one of my intellectual heroes) goes to a strong philosophy grad program as an Ayn Rand-reading mailman from Alberta. But he’s open-minded, inventively interdisciplinary, and straight-up great at thinking. So he thrives, lands some good gigs, and manages against the odds to get tenure at Yale. By the time he finds himself back at Arizona, teaching where he was trained, he has developed a subtle and sophisticated defense of property rights that is immune to standard left-leaning objections. His open-minded, empirically-focused curiosity about the way property conventions actually do solve collective action problems in the real world ends up establishing the moral necessity of clear property rights in a way more familiar rationalist, libertarian arguments never could quite manage to do.

Schmidtz’s style of philosophical sophistication—which integrates insights from social scientists such as Vernon Smith, Robert Ellickson and Elinor Ostrom—is then inherited by his libertarian students, such as Matt Zwolinski and Jason Brennan. They go on to become professors and head off in their own directions, taking all this sophistication for granted, building on it, deepening libertarian thought on other margins. And so, eventually, Jason, in Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know argues (drawing on previous work with Schmidtz) that the standard libertarian rejection of “positive liberty” is based on a mistake. “Negative liberty,” or non-interference, Jason argues, is valuable in large part because of its contribution to positive liberty. And so Matt, co-author with John Tomasi of the forthcoming Brief History of Libertarianism, argues that the libertarian non-aggression principle is false and/or vacuous, that there’s nothing inherently un-libertarian about redistributive poverty relief, and that a guaranteed basic income might be a good libertarian idea.

This, to my mind, is what a vital, maturing school of political thought looks like. It demonstrates the early success of the intergenerational strategy of spreading the ideas of liberty through the academy.

But what is libertarianism, you may be asking, if it rejects the non-aggression principle and holds that negative liberty is the handmaiden of positive liberty? What is libertarianism if it embraces “social justice”?

It’s a good question. It’s not obvious that this sort of libertarianism is not something else, even if it’s indisputably libertarian-ish. Does it all simply melt into standard liberalism? I don’t think so. However, it does in effect admit that standard libertarian arguments against standard liberal foundations are weak. But by rebuilding libertarianism more or less on the standard liberal foundations, the new libertarianism challenges standard liberalism in a way the old libertarianism never really could.

Neoclassical liberalism is, in sum, the direct descendant of standard libertarianism, but it didn’t develop as a rebuke to standard libertarianism. Far from it. It developed, in the face of standard liberal challenges to libertarianism, as a challenge to standard liberalism.

Neoclassical liberalism sees itself as the best liberalism in the game—as the best account of what it means to promote freedom into the world—and wants to make itself the new standard liberalism. All those renovations to the inherited libertarian foundations—ditching the non-aggression principle, embracing positive liberty, social justice, and all that—were necessary to shore-up libertarianism so that it can rise to the challenge of reclaiming the liberal mantle.

It doesn’t really matter what you call it, or me, or us. What matters is that I think some version of neoclassical liberalism (or whatever you want to call it) is correct. I think it’s the best liberalism going. It’s what we stand for here at Niskanen.

By linking economic liberty and social justice, strengthening the case for both, neoclassical liberalism offers a fresh perspective on the welfare state and the hard problems of welfare policy. We’re excited to develop that perspective and explore its implications in detail, seeking practical ideas to alleviate poverty and promote mobility in ways that make freedom work for everyone.