Monday, November 14, 2022

Assessing Libertarianism Requires Engagement with Modern Libertarian Political Thought

Guest Blogger

For the Balkinization Symposium on Andrew Koppelman, Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed  (St. Martin’s Press, 2022). 

Ilya Somin

Andrew Koppelman’s Burning Down the House makes some worthwhile points, and I agree with more of it than I would have expected. But it is also something of a missed opportunity. Koppelman attempts a critical analysis of libertarian political thought and its impact on public policy. But he overlooks major aspects of both.

Let’s start with a few points of agreement. Early in the book, Koppelman recognizes that free markets have made enormous contributions to human freedom and welfare (he calls it “the Great Enrichment”). He also notes the validity of F.A. Hayek’s classic critique of economic central planning, on the ground that governments lack the knowledge needed to plan economic production competently. Perhaps most strikingly, he points out that many on the left fail to recognize the contradiction between their support for diversity and their sympathy for socialism; the latter is likely to stifle the former. As Koppelman puts it, “[m]any on the left repudiate capitalism because they don’t grasp the anti-socialist logic of their present views.”

If I have a quarrel with this part of the book, it is that it overstates the extent to which much of the rest of the left has internalized these points. Koppelman insists that mainstream modern left-liberals – including even self-described “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders have mostly accepted Hayek’s key insights, and mostly reject central planning. In reality, much of the left still advocates centralized control of large parts of the economy – most notably health care and education – and Sanders’ supposedly new version of socialism includes policies that collectively would amount to a government takeover of the majority of the US economy. Much of the political right – especially  in its Trump-era incarnation, with its love of “industrial policy”    is guilty of similar sins. Koppelman is overly optimistic when he writes that  appreciation for the (limited) virtues he sees in market processes has “prevailed across the political spectrum.”

Koppelman is also right to point out that some prominent advocates of libertarianism – most notably Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard – have made a variety of weak and sometimes even downright silly arguments. Many of these weaknesses have been covered before, including by other libertarians. But Koppelman’s listing of them is particularly helpful and accessible.

Finally, Koppelman is to be commended for his outreach to advocates of an ideology that he is deeply opposed to. Several participants in this symposium (including myself) are people chosen despite (or perhaps because!) of the fact that they are likely to reject key elements of Koppelman’s thesis. Such openness is commendable, especially at a time when ideological polarization leads many to stick to their ideological safe spaces.

Sadly, Koppelman’s relatively thorough dissection of Rand and Rothbard is coupled with neglect of more recent and more sophisticated thinkers.  As a result, he overlooks crucial ways in which libertarians have addressed many of the points he raises. When it comes to effects on public policy, he overlooks many of the areas where libertarian ideas have had their biggest impact, while greatly overstating their effect in a few fields where he finds it particularly objectionable (most notably on environmental and welfare policy).

With the exception of a brief discussion of Richard Epstein’s work, Burning Down the House includes strikingly little consideration of the last forty years of scholarship by libertarian political theorists, legal scholars, economists, and policy analysts. The most recent libertarian scholarship he subjects to sustained analysis is Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, published in 1974, a great (though flawed) work that is nonetheless far from the last word on its subject. It is as if a critique of left-liberalism overlooked nearly everything published by serious left-wing thinkers since John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (1971). Indeed, Rawls himself gets more air time in Burning Down the House than any post- Nozick libertarian.

This focus weakens many parts of the book. Here, I cover just a few examples related to my own areas of expertise.

 To my mind, the Koppelman’s single most significant omission is the neglect of modern libertarian critiques of democratic government, particularly those focused on voter ignorance and bias. After all, regulation and redistribution by democratic processes is the principal left-liberal alternative to libertarianism.

Prominent libertarian scholars such as Bryan Caplan and Jason Brennan have shown that the vast majority of voters are both ignorant of basic facts about politics and government, and highly biased in their evaluation of what they do know (I have made a few contributions to this literature, myself).  The problem is not that the voters are stupid or that information is not available to them, but that the low chance that any one vote will influence the outcome of an election actually makes ignorance and bias rational behavior for most voters, most of the time.  Particularly since the rise of Donald Trump and his egregious exploitation of public ignorance on a variety of issues, left-liberal scholars have also focused more on the dangers of public ignorance, and some have begun to see that the challenge is harder to overcome than democratic theorists previously believed.

If the policies of democratic governments are heavily influenced by voter ignorance and bias, the quality of those policies is likely to be greatly reduced. This poses a particularly serious challenge for Koppelman and others who call for carefully calibrated policies that deftly balance competing considerations.

Throughout his book, Koppelman recognizes important advantages of markets, but then says governments can use targeted interventions to correct various injustices and market failures, without unduly stifling enterprise, burdening liberty, or massively wasting resources. In a world of widespread political ignorance and bias, this happy medium becomes highly unlikely. Voter ignorance helps explain why governments routinely adopt dysfunctional policies that inflict great harm for little or no benefit, including protectionism, persecution of various minority groups, migration restrictions that inflict enormous harm on natives, as well as potential migrants, and much else.

In addition to pointing out the cognitive limitations of ballot-box voters, libertarian thinkers have also emphasized that people generally make better-informed and more objective decisions when they make choices in markets and civil society. That’s because, unlike individual ballot-box votes, such decisions usually do have a high chance of making a difference. For that reason, we generally take them more seriously, and make more effort to curb biases.

If you are like most people, you probably spent more time seeking out information the last time you decided which TV set or smartphone to buy, than the last time you decided who to back in a presidential election. That’s because the TV you choose is likely to be the one that actually ends up in your house. But when you turn on the TV and have the misfortune of seeing the president or some other powerful politician, your odds of determining who that person is and what policies they pursue are infinitesimally small. Both economic theory and extensive historical and experimental evidence indicates that people make better decisions when they make individually decisive choices by “voting with their feet” than when they vote at the ballot box. I summarize much of that evidence in my recent book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom.

In the course of defending paternalistic efforts to protect people from their cognitive biases, Koppelman recognizes that  “government decision makers are subject to their own biases and distortions of judgment.”  He responds that  “this is not a complaint specifically about paternalism. It is an argument against any legislation at all.” Precisely so! Voter ignorance and bias – combined with that exhibited by many government officials (who also often have weak incentives to get things right)  – is a strike against a wide range of government interventions. Any defense of such policies must consider the extent to which these problems undercut its value. And it must also explain why people won’t make better-quality decisions on the subject if allowed to do so through foot voting, rather than ballot-box voting.

Another vital branch of libertarian scholarship that Koppelman overlooks is the study of private-sector solutions to public goods problems and externalities. This has been a major focus of libertarian thought at least since Nobel Prize-winning economist R.H. Coase’s pathbreaking work in the 1960s. More recently, Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel in large part for her work on private production of public goods, and other libertarian thinkers have extensively studied private planned communities and other institutions that produce public goods and address externalities that many previously assumed can only be dealt with by government intervention.

Libertarianism’s supposed neglect of public goods and externalities problems is a major theme of Koppelman’s book. Yet he does not seriously consider the extensive modern libertarian literature on these very issues.

Finally, despite his discussion of property rights focused on the classic writings of John Locke and Robert Nozick, Koppelman also overlooks the vast bulk of modern libertarian property scholarship. He thus neglects the ways in which libertarian thinkers – beginning with Bernard Siegan’s classic work in the 1970s – have played a leading role in documenting the immense harm caused by exclusionary zoning, cutting off millions of people from job, educational, and housing opportunities. As Siegan explained, these problems can be greatly alleviated simply by lifting restrictions on the construction of new housing. This idea has since been taken up by economists and housing experts across the political spectrum, and helped give rise to a major zoning reform movement, which has led to important policy changes in several states, most recently in California. The enormous scale of the harm caused by zoning should give pause to Koppelman and others who believe government should be given broad discretion in controlling property and land-use decisions.

Koppelman’s excessively narrow focus also shows up in his discussion of libertarian impacts on policy, where he stresses the supposed effects of categorical rejection of redistribution, and climate denialism. He claims that “the Republican Party became increasingly Rothbardian: reflexively opposed to all taxation and regulation.” In reality, even in its most libertarian-friendly period under Reagan, the GOP never came close to rejecting “all taxation and regulation.” At most, it advocated tighter restrictions on these policies.

In its more recent Trumpian “national conservative” incarnation, the Party has embraced large-scale protectionism, industrial planning, and massive migration restrictions. It has also dropped most previous attempts to cut entitlement programs, with Trump openly proclaiming his opposition to cuts, and indifference to the growth of budget deficits and government spending. The idea that even moderate libertarian ideas on regulation and redistribution and spending have great influence in today’s GOP is questionable, outside of a few relatively narrow policy areas; extreme Rothbardianism has almost none. F.A. Hayek, whom Koppelman describes as the leading founder of modern libertarianism,  wrote that nationalism “frequently provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism.” He could have been describing today’s Republican Party.

On climate change, Koppelman has a point when he notes many libertarians are tempted to embrace denialism. But this has little to do with the influence of the philanthropist Koch brothers (to whom he largely attributes this trend), and much more with a reluctance to admit the existence of any problem that might be used to justify large-scale government intervention. Advocates of other ideologies also often tend to deny inconvenient facts (though this in no way excuses the phenomenon among libertarians).

Still, our failure to more effectively combat global warming has far less to do with libertarian denialism, than with the enormous costs of cutting fossil fuel consumption in the absence of a comparably cheap and reliable alternative. European nations have been even less successful in cutting emissions than the US, despite the fact that libertarian political influence in most of these countries is minimal. Environmentalists’ stifling of nuclear power – the most readily available cheap alternative to fossil fuels – has also exacerbated the problem.

On environmental policy, as on other issues, Koppelman would have done well to engage with relevant modern libertarian scholarship, such as Jonathan Adler’s work on market-based approaches to climate change, and economist Terry Anderson’s prominent book Free Market Environmentalism.

The exaggerated focus on redistribution and climate change leads Koppelman to overlook multiple policy areas where libertarian ideas have had much greater impact. Examples include Milton Friedman’s key role in the abolition of the draft, his remarkably successful advocacy of anti-inflationary monetary policy (adopted by numerous central banks), the rise of school choice in the US and Europe (another idea effectively popularized by Friedman), and the extensive role of libertarians in promoting stronger constitutional protection for property rights (where Richard Epstein and other libertarian thinkers have had a big impact). I have already mentioned the issue of exclusionary zoning. And this list is far from exhaustive.

None of the modern libertarian ideas discussed above is unassailable, and most have generated significant counter-arguments. For example, libertarian criticisms of voter ignorance have generated responses both from those who claim the problem isn’t really that bad (a view less common on the left since the rise of Trump!), and those who agree that it is severe, but propose non-libertarian solutions. There is also an ongoing debate over whether the libertarianism’s impact on the policy issues I listed has been a beneficial one.

But sustained critical engagement with modern libertarianism cannot neglect these issues. It has to address the best of modern libertarian thought, and systematically consider those issues where libertarian ideas have had their greatest impact.

Ilya Somin is a law professor at George Mason University and author of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom, and Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. You can reach him by e-mail at


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