On “The Dangers of Libertarian Social Engineering”

The French Enlightenment was robbed! FIRE THOSE UMPS!

In my January 31st edition of Links, I linked to Daniel Kuehn’s article in the Journal of Austrian Economics about the Depression of 1920. He had written a critique of the Austrian view of that depression as advanced by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. and other members of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Kuehn responded to me and notified his own readers of my post. He added that he liked my self-description, which I have since updated to reflect my not-so-recent graduation from law school:

I am a graduate of the Rutgers University School of Law in Camden. My main career goal is to use the law to force my Libertarian ideals on people I’ll never meet. If these people could subsidize me as well, that would be a bonus.

Kuehn said that this description reminded him of an earlier post of his entitled The Dangers of Libertarian Social Engineering, which I’d like to discuss today as a case study in how uninspiring arguments against libertarianism can be, even—or perhaps especially—when these arguments come from people who claim to have libertarian sympathies. 

Before I launch into that, let me first express my appreciation for Daniel Kuehn, Don Boudreaux, and Gregory Mankiw, all of whom I will discuss “infra” (See? Law school is good for something…). These thinkers have all expressed libertarian sympathies, which means I’ll probably agree with them at least 92% of the time. Where we disagree, it will probably be over abstract theories the effects of which none of us will witness in our lifetimes. This post is not intended to put anybody down or make enemies. These learned people have surely forgotten more about economics than I’ll ever know, and I wish to continue to learn as much as I can from them.

Kuehn’s efforts to acknowledge and respond to criticism are most admirable. I fully expect a comment or two to appear not long after I publish this. I look forward to continuing the discussion. Specifically, I’d like to know whether I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented his post in any way. I’m flummoxed that someone as intelligent as Daniel Kuehn would celebrate ideas so plainly acerbic not just to libertarianism, but to reason itself. I must have misunderstood something. Follow along. Do you see what I see?

* * *

DAVID BROOKS WARNING: Thinking in excess may be harmful to your society.

Two Theories of Change (May 24, 2010): New York Times columnist David Brooks brusquely declared the winner of the age-old philosophical debate of whether reason trumps tradition, as articulated by the French Enlightenment, or tradition trumps reason, as articluated by the Scotch/British Enlightenment: Sorry, rationalists. Tradition trumps reason. David Brooks “explains”:

[T]here is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong. And out of that truth grows a style of change, a style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance.

Thus spake David Brooks. For those interested in a deeper explanation, Brooks did meditate for a space on how “horrified” Scottish philosopher Edmund Burke was that “individuals [like Thomas Paine] would use abstract reason to sweep away arrangements that had stood the test of time”. That settles it, apparently. As a rule, the winner of a debate is the one who is the most horrified at his opponents, right?

* * *

Beware of Social Engineers, (May 25, 2010): In response to Brooks, libertarian and former Chairman of the Economics Department at George Mason University Don Boudreaux identified a liberal Scot who opposed central planning, and who therefore, ostensibly, would have supported a French-Enlightenment-style purge of governmental regulatory authority. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t quite confront Brooks’s declaration head-on: Does tradition trump reason, or does reason trump tradition?

* * *

Gregory Mankiw "felt better" after reading Brooks.

Modesty, Gradualism, Balance (May 26, 2010): Harvard University Professor of Economics Greg Mankiw, responds to Brooks with gratitude. Mankiw admittedly “recoils” at radical libertarian propositions. Whether Mankiw actually confronts radical libertarian ideas on their merits upon regaining composure is immaterial for the purpose of his post. Suffice to say, Mankiw believed that Brooks offered “a good explanation” as to why we should all renounce reason in favor of tradition. Reading how “horrified” Edmund Burke was at Thomas Paine’s ideas somehow made Mankiw “feel better” about his own involuntary convulsions.

* * *

The Danger of Libertatian Social Engineering (Later That Day): Comes then Daniel Kuehn to assemble all of this for us. Kuehn first concluded that Don Boudreaux completely missed the point. I agree. Brooks staked something much more important than the names and native countries of some philosophers that Boudreaux agrees with. Brooks renounced the legitimacy of reason itself. In my opinion, Boudreaux should have defended that noble institution more zealously.

Kuehn next concluded that Gregory Mankiw and David Brooks “nailed it”. Yes, they really did “nail it” with their spasms and anti-rationalism, but that is no cause to rejoice. The simple fact is that American voters still tend to recoil in horror, rather than ponder in contemplation, at the thought of a libertarian society. If one attempts to explain this reflex to libertarians, the libertarians often recoil in horror themselves. As Kuehn cogently observes:

I think one of the biggest dangers of libertarianism is that since it is ostensibly a doctrine of individual liberty, the fact that an entirely new, theoretical order is imposed on society is obscured. Try telling a libertarian they’re imposing a grand plan for a new social order and watch the steam come out of their ears either because (1.) they’re furious, or (2.) they can’t process the accusation – it makes no sense to them.

This behavior on the part of libertarians, of course, is much more offensive than the recoiling that balanced, even-keeled moderates like Gregory Mankiw exhibit when confronted with radical libertarian ideas, right?

* * *

"Tonight I Am Your Master"

Jarringly absent from all of these posts, of course, is any coherent argument—beyond fear of the unknown—as to why, exactly, a libertarian society would be dangerous. Where I sought such an argument, I found to my horror, only David Brooks’s base exhortation to forsake reason in favor of tradition. How should I respond to this? Thomas Paine tells it like it is (with my apologies to any savages in the audience):

To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture. Enjoy, sir, your insensibility of feeling and reflecting. It is the prerogative of animals. And no man will envy you these honors, in which a savage only can be your rival and a bear your master.

If steam comes out of the libertarians’ ears, it is only at the frustration of arguing with people who openly and proudly muzzle the voice of reason so that they may continue to believe, at our expense, whatever makes them comfortable. No, I have no qualms whatsoever about “imposing” a libertarian society on those who deliberately shut off their brains in an effort to avoid a libertarian society. Those people will just have to get used to experiencing new things.

The day might come when I, too, understand this alleged “limit” of reason and indulge thenceforth in the prerogative of animals. That day is not today. It is simply too easy to cognize how age-old, yet potentially injurious, institutions can endure—especially when these institutions are predicated on the use of force. We should carefully scrutinize the so-called “wisdom of the ages” in light of reason, and abandon it when it fails that scrutiny. I don’t even know how to explain why. It seems so self-evident.

Please tell me I’ve missed something.

UPDATE 1: David Brooks wrote a nice anecdote about libertarian economist Milton Friedman in 2006:

As I was finishing college, I was invited to Stanford with a small group of young people to discuss economics with Milton Friedman for a PBS series called “Tyranny of the Status Quo.” I was a socialist then and spent several weeks studying left-wing economic doctrine in order to rebut the great man.

On the afternoon of my final cram session, I found a chair by the hotel pool, but as I was mastering the high points of the Swedish regulatory regime, the Hawaii women’s volleyball team settled around me, sunning themselves and cavorting in the water. Distracted for some reason, I did not go on to crush Friedman in debate that afternoon.

The show consisted of me making some left-wing argument, Friedman demolishing it in roughly six to eight words, and then me sitting there with my mouth agape trying to think of what to say.

That night Friedman and his wife, Rose, took us out to dinner, and Milton pushed aside his plate of sweetbreads (which appalled me) and smilingly, clearly and engagingly, gave me a lesson in free market economics.

They say Voltaire glowed with the smile of reason, and Friedman did too. And while I never became a libertarian as he was, the encounter was one of the turning points in my life. It opened new ways of seeing the world and was an exhilarating demonstration of the power of ideas.

There’s still time for David. We can make a libertarian of him yet!

Update 2: This comment should correct what appears to be a common misinterpretation of what I have written:

Daniel: “What’s completely missing is this idea that you’re promoting that Brooks wants to freeze society in time, never changing it when reason suggests a change is worthwhile.”

autofyrsto: I apologize for being unclear. I do not understand Brooks to reject all uses of reason. As I understand Brooks, he approves the use of reason for the purpose of tinkering at the margins, but he rejects the use of reason for the purpose of sweeping away the wisdom of the ages. My position is that one must always apply reason. Actually, I believe that both of these named uses are poles on the same continuum of evaluating societal institutions. I would always apply reason when evaluating societal institutions. Period. Surely, I would admonish that the closer one is to advocating sweeping away the wisdom of the ages, the more careful one should be to avoid fallacy. However, I do not believe that reason applied to the sweeping away is conclusively unreasonable.

Gene Callahan appears to have made a similar mistake below. An open question is whether a rejection of reason for one purpose is tantamount to a rejection of reason for all purposes. It seems to me that one who picks and chooses when to apply reason and when not to apply reason has, in a sense, rejected the “authority” of reason, if not its “use”. I’m interested to hear comments on that point.

7 Responses to On “The Dangers of Libertarian Social Engineering”

  1. Daniel Kuehn says:

    Just saw this – I don’t have time to look at it in detail now, but I’ll try to tomorrow morning. Thanks for linking!

    When I say I’m sympathetic, I mean that I feel as if libertarians are sincere when they say they care about human liberty, and I have a hard time not sympathizing with that. That having been said, I’m no where near as libertarian as – for example – Don Boudreaux.

    • autofyrsto says:

      Okay, well, in light of this, I might just have to bump our percentage of agreement from about 92% to about 84%. Mankiw is still up, though. He did actually identify himself as a “libertarian a the margin”….

  2. Daniel Kuehn says:

    Thoughts here:


    I think you are worrying yourself over your own trumped up charges against me 🙂

  3. Gene Callahan says:

    “Brooks renounced the legitimacy of reason itself.”

    Utter nonsense. If someone asks you to jump to the moon, and you demur, you are not “renounced the legitimacy of your legs themselves.” You’re just not going to try to do the impossible with them.

    As Michael Oakeshott said, “Rationalism is thoroughly unreasonable.”

  4. autofyrsto says:

    Utter truth. If someone asks you to jump to the moon and you demur, then you have renounced the use and authority of your legs for the purpose of sending you to the moon.

    Left unsupported is your unspoken assumption that creating a more just and peaceful society is as impossible as jumping to the moon. If that is your world, then you have my pity, but please leave me out of it.

  5. Dude, read some Hayek and some Oakeshott. Your rationalism is unreasonable!

  6. […] have no objection to anyone using a national park, but I also know that social engineering usually ends badly.  Mainly, the idea that the Times, NPR, and people like Ms. Preckwinkle are forwarding, that is is […]

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