March 11, 2016

Two Libertarians: A Dialogue

“The ideal politics of freedom is a sort of minimal state. National defense and a court system is all you really need.”

“Cool. Nothing even close to that has ever existed, has it?”

“I guess not. I’d say frontier America, but then you’ll just go on about state-sponsored genocide, slavery, married women not being able to own property … all that P.C. stuff.”

“You’ve got to admit that early America is a terrible approximation of an ideal politics of freedom. If you don’t stop talking as if it sort of was, people might suspect you’re nostalgic about the golden age of patriarchal white supremacy.”

“I don’t appreciate your smug insinuation, but I take the point. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that a minimal state is ideal, in terms of liberty. It doesn’t matter that nothing like it has ever existed. It’s still what we ought to try to be moving toward.”

“But why so confident about the institutional contours of your ideal? I’m not so sure about the reliability of armchair political theorizing. Just look at this libertarian freedom index, which shows that a few of the countries with the least minimal states are among the freest places in the world. Really, they’re probably some of the freest places in human history. So what do you make of that?”

“Freedom? Bah! Look at those tax rates!”

“The index takes that into account. Actually, it sort of double counts them, since countries get dinged for high tax rates and for having a government that consumes a big percentage of GDP. Those aren’t exactly the same thing, but they’re kind of the same thing. The point is, Denmark is penalized big time for its super-high taxes, yet it still does just about as well as the U.S. in terms of specifically economic freedom. And it does even better on other freedoms.

“Good luck enjoying it with the 20 percent you get to keep.”

“I guess you think these libertarian indices aren’t worried enough about taxes. The point is that Denmark comes out so well, despite the punishing taxes, because its economy is more laissez faire than ours in a number of ways. Trade, say. Or labor markets.”

“Well, I suppose it’s possible to have a big welfare state and a relatively small regulatory state. They don’t necessarily go together, though I think they tend to.”

“They don’t have to go together at all. In fact, it seems that if you want a big welfare state that works, you need relatively free markets to work their magic. Doesn’t it make you wonder whether it sort of works the other way around, too?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, high levels of economic freedom won’t be politically feasible unless there’s a safety net that assures people that dynamist creative destruction and whatnot isn’t going to leave them in a lurch.”

“Look, the Danish welfare system is absolutely impossible here. I mean, it’s a tiny, homogeneous country. It’s almost too absurd to even think about. You need to get your head out of the clouds!”

“That’s what I’m trying to say to you! I’m not the one demanding an ideal system that doesn’t even remotely resemble anything that’s ever existed.”

“Don’t be glib. I don’t think we’ll get there overnight. Nobody does. But the ideal should guide our thinking about where we’re headed.”

“I don’t see the point of it. I think we’ve got to start where we find ourselves.”

“Obvious much?”

“And where we’re starting from limits where we can go. Just listen to yourself! If contingent cultural and political constraints mean there’s no path from the American status quo to anything like a Danish-style welfare system—and I totally agree about that— isn’t it even less likely that there’s a path from here to a utopian minimal state?”


“And if there’s no path, what function is your ideal really playing?”

“It’s a lodestar!”

“But there’s no point setting out on a voyage to an inaccessible destination. The fact is, neither of us knows what the freest feasible political system—starting from here—looks like. I take Hayek super-seriously.”

“As if I don’t?”

“You think he’s a sellout.”

“He supported a guaranteed basic income!”

“What I mean is that, like Hayek, I believe the social world is too complicated and unpredictable to see more than one or two steps down any path. I think you believe that, too.”

“Maybe. As a practical matter, it’s very helpful politically to pretend that everything you don’t like will definitely send us all hurtling down the road to serfdom.”

“Haha! Right. So, we both believe in unintended consequences. Some things you think will work won’t. And some things you think won’t work will. We both want more freedom. The question is how you get a little more of it in the real world starting from here. That’s why it’s so striking that there are countries with really big governments that are also really, really free. It’s a possibility proof!”

“God! We’re never going to be Denmark! Support for redistribution declines with the diversity of the population. Get over it!”

“But we’ve already got a very big welfare state! It just doesn’t work adequately as a safety net. So a lot of Americans are super freaked out about their economic prospects, and that bodes ill for our economic freedom. I mean, our economic liberty score has been plummeting since 2000! And now we’ve got protectionist, anti-immigration economic nationalists making a serious run for the presidential nominations of both major parties! It’s pretty scary.”

“Well, that’s democracy for you! Which reminds me! The countries that do the very best on economic freedom, like Hong Kong and Singapore, are the least democratic. They show that you don’t need a big welfare state to get a small regulatory state. It’s a possibility proof!”

“Touché. So your plan for a minimal American state is to make it less democratic? How does that work? Gonna put it to a vote?”

“Well, maybe if more people understood public choice theory…”

“Back up a second. I’m saying that if we patched up the already existing, already very large American welfare state so that it did a better job of preventing people from falling through the cracks, that might make the zero-sum thinking of economic nationalist politicians like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders less attractive, and an agenda of economic liberalization might be more feasible.”

“So you say.”

“And you’re telling me that this is impossible, as a nuts-and-bolts political matter—that I’m a numbskull with my head in the clouds—because the United States is too big and multicultural to repair its welfare system.”

“I might not put it exactly that way…”

“Yet you’re saying that if we could figure out a way to make the U.S. more like a Singapore-style technocratic autocracy, then maybe we could have both a small regulatory state and a small welfare state.”

“Worth considering, isn’t it?”

“Come on! You can’t have it both ways! You can’t tell me that promoting economic liberty by patching the preexisting safety net is politically naive, and then turn right around and point to the example of Singapore or Hong Kong, which are much further away from us than Denmark, both politically and culturally. And authoritarian to boot!”

“I don’t know why you’re so romantic about democracy. Look who’s on top of that Fraser freedom index. Anyway, I don’t think there’s an easy path to a free society. It requires laying a great deal of groundwork.”

“Okay, so what’s your agenda? What’s the path you’re heading more or less blindly down?”

“Have you seen my white paper explaining why just about every existing economic regulation violates the 10th Amendment? They went wild for it at the Federalist Society.”

“Your plan is to sue the government until it makes regulation illegal?”

“Just being realistic.”

“You’re kidding.”

“That’s why, incidentally, it’s so critically important that we put a Republican in the White House this fall.”