Thursday, June 11, 2020

Libertarianism and Type II error

Andrew Koppelman

Brink Lindsey has just published a thoughtful reflection on libertarianism in the age of pandemic.  An avowed former libertarian, he concludes that with respect to today’s most pressing public policy issue, America’s literally fatal deficit in state capacity, “libertarianism has nothing to say.” But he still thinks that it has something useful to contribute to thinking about government.  I think he’s right about this, but he ought to be even harder on the libertarians than he is.  His analysis reveals the importance of keeping hard core libertarians (who are a large chunk of today’s Republican Party) out of power.

Lindsey thinks that the pandemic has shown the value of libertarian skepticism: 

“Even in the middle of a public health emergency, when the case for broad government powers is overwhelming, there is no guarantee that those powers will be used wisely or effectively. The CDC and the FDA both have thousands of employees and multi-billion-dollar annual budgets; notwithstanding those considerable resources at their disposal, and the obvious importance of controlling infectious diseases to their missions, those two agencies failed in the relatively simple task of developing viral infection tests in a timely manner – with a staggering cost in lives and dollars lost as a result of their incompetence.”

The lesson is that “there will always be a vital need for critical scrutiny of government’s actions, and thus an important role to play for those with a skeptical view of government power and competence.”  But the modern libertarian movement goes too far, presuming that “government is congenitally incapable of doing anything well, the public sphere is by its very nature dysfunctional and morally tainted, and therefore the only thing to do with government is – in the famous words of activist Grover Norquist – ‘to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.’”

The pandemic has shown how silly that is.  “Leaving aside the decades of government support for medical research that made it technologically possible to identify the virus and test for its presence in a human host, there is no way that private, profit-seeking firms would ever develop and conduct the testing, contact tracing, and isolation of the infected needed to slow the spread of the virus. Government funding and coordination are irreplaceable. Looking ahead, there is no prospect for rapid development and wide distribution of treatments and vaccines without a heavy dose of government involvement.”

Skepticism of government has its uses, but Lindsey’s argument shows why hard core libertarians like Norquist (who has enormous political influence) make recklessly incompetent administrators.  Their proper place is outside the government looking in.

When scientists test hypotheses, they use standardized terms to refer to their mistakes.  A type I error is the (false) detection of an effect that has not in fact occurred.  A type II error is the failure to detect an effect that has in fact occurred.  When a doctor mistakenly diagnoses a disease that you haven’t actually got, and orders unnecessary surgery, that is a type I error.  Of course, it’s just as bad if she commits a type II error – declaring that you’re not sick when you really are, or that you’ll get better without treatment.  Good doctors are constantly alert to both kinds of mistake.

Now imagine a doctor – let’s call him Dr. Pangloss - who worries obsessively about unnecessary treatment, to the point where he’s agonizingly reluctant to interfere with the body’s capacity to heal itself.  He will become dangerous if he routinely remains passive when medical intervention is necessary.  If he’s almost never willing to risk type I error, he should not be a doctor.

Hard core libertarianism presents that kind of danger.  Unnecessary government intervention is a kind of type I error, and the failure to intervene is type II error.  Libertarianism focuses on type I error and is oblivious to type II.  In practice, then, just like Dr. Pangloss, it produces a lot of type II error.  It is biased against intervention, either because it is excessively optimistic about the virtues of unregulated markets and excessively pessimistic about honest competent regulation (Milton Friedman, Richard Epstein), or because it regards regulation as a violation of rights (Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand). 

The focus on type I error can be valuable.  If you make it your mission in life to find it, you sometimes will find it.  You will then have made an important contribution to our knowledge.  Dr. Pangloss shouldn’t be treating patients, but he could be a fabulous medical researcher, saving lives by showing that some treatments are useless or harmful.  Libertarians who are confident that the state can do nothing right have produced first rate scholarship and journalism about abuses of regulatory power.  That doesn’t mean they ought to be in charge of government.

The war on big government, Lindsey thinks, made sense in the 1970s era of stagflation.  Today’s challenge, however, is to build the American state’s ability to exercise its power effectively.  “The gradual diffusion of these anti-government attitudes through the conservative movement and the Republican Party has rendered the American right worse than irrelevant to the project of restoring American state capacity. It has become actively hostile, undermining the motivations needed to launch such a project and the virtues needed to pull it off.”

One of my chronic challenges, as a political philosopher, is to persuade people that they should care about the nerdy stuff I think about.  Lindsey shows why you should care.  Libertarianism ideology, which is a species of political philosophy, has become one of the principal dangers that America faces.  Philosophy can kill you if you don’t pay attention.

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