Why I’m a libertarian, part two: the cost of good intentions

February 14, 2012

A few weeks ago, in response to this blog post, Jamelle Bouie asked me a question: why do I consider myself a libertarian, rather than a straightforward liberal?

That’s a great question! And I’m spending some time answering it. Previous entries in the series:

Part One: Consenting Adults (1/31/2012)

Part Zero: Ground Level Decks (1/30/2012)

The Cost of Good Intentions

Having clarified the proper relationship — which is ‘no relationship’ —  between the state and individual non-harming activity, I’d like to turn now toward the issue of state involvement in preventing and ameliorating harm. There should be no question that the state has some important role to play here; to disagree would be to leave the realm of libertarianism in favor of some sort or anarchy. So I don’t think the first-order question —- does the state have a role to play in regard to harm — is worth any further discussion. But that only leaves the second-order question: what role should the state play?

Rather obliquely, I think a singular concern animates this discussion: the lawful state execution of an innocent man. Which is, I think, the ultimate example of the general problem of the state causing harm to the non-harming individual as it seeks to prevent and ameliorate harms perpetrated on the non-harming individual by others. As a non-harming individual, I am obviously interested in the state having a monopoly on violence such that violent harm will not be perpetrated upon me by others; but if that monopoly on violence results in a greater harm being perpetrated upon me by the state than I otherwise could reasonably expect absent the state’s involvement, then clearly there is a problem.

And that’s the rub. If we were not concerned about harm caused by the state, then preventing harm caused by private citizens would be simple. We could employ massive numbers of cops (at massive expense), do huge dragnets anytime there was a mugging, arrest every plausible suspect within a 10 mile radius of any crime, drop all suspects in jail until they could prove they were innocent, and execute anyone who couldn’t do so within a week. Now, as absurd as that examples sounds, its principle is the basis of all limitations on the state’s ability to stop harmful behavior by individuals. The power to stop harmful behavior inherently entails the possibility of the state doing harm itself.

And so we find ourselves in a cost/benefit analysis. We need to maximize the utility function to the individual such that the harm reduction produced by state action is maximized, after the harm done by the state is subtracted out. And thus we get many of the familiar post-Enlightenment civil liberties: innocent until proven guilty, trial by jury, habeus corpus, an independent judiciary, the right to counsel, protections against search and seizure, and so forth. Many people naively believe that these rights are in place as limitations on the state’s ability to discriminate in pursuit of the guilty, that they exist for the purpose of due process and equality of all defendants. Nonsense. These restrictions are in place to minimize the state harm done to the innocent, non-harming individual. That they ultimately aid the guilty as well is a defect, albeit one that we happily live with given the alternative.

And so we learn to live with the consequences of this arrangement. We empower the state to reduce harm through prevention and punishment of crime, which gains us utility X. But we restrict the state from using all possible tools to maximize X, because those tools come with costs Y. Our goal is to maximize the function U= X-Y, hopefully across both society and all non-harming individuals. Which leads us to the situation in which, hopefully, we trade off a fair number of guilty men escaping punishment from the state, in exchange for an absolute minimization of the number of innocent men who are wrongly punished.

That’s the theory. And so far, I would suspect that any straightforward liberal is right with me. And probably many contemporary conservatives. The only difference at this point might be where we believe the line falls on the utility maximizing function. It’s a fair question. Some conservatives might believe that you can maximize total and individual utility by paring down the 4th amendment search and seizure protections. Some liberals might believe that the utility maximization may come from doing the opposite.

It largely depends on how you rate the costs of state harm. If you don’t think it’s a big deal for innocent people to be pulled over by the cops now and again for 15 minutes or so, you could obviously further optimize the utility function by allowing random Terry stops on the highways. Conversely, if you think all random citizen interactions with cops are highly suspect and potentially very harmful, you might very well believe that we could optimize the utility function by getting rid of the random DWI checkpoints on the highway. There’s no obviously correct answer; at some point, it becomes a clash of axioms.

So as a policy and constitutional matter, I probably differ from most conservatives in that I believe the harm done by the state to innocent non-harming individuals is a very serious detractors from the overall utility. It’s one reason I adamantly oppose the death penalty. It’s why I think indefinite detention is a policy utterly beneath our republic. And it’s why I’m for stronger 4th amendment interpretations by the courts and legislative restraints on police activity. I’m probably to the left of most liberals in these views as well, although I don’t think I could fundamentally be distinguished from them in a basic test on these counts. Perhaps I rate the costs of these state harms slightly higher, but I don’t think it’s all that different.

Where my thinking parts from the liberals is in my view of what constitutes a negative cost in terms of state harm: liberals (and conservatives, too, of course) do not fully account for the state harms, or the magnitude of that harm, when they look to use the power of the state to solve problems. And this, I think, illuminates what I see as the the principle difference between modern liberalism and libertarianism: liberals seem quite convinced that any definable problems or harm can, if not be eliminated, at least be mitigated through state action, such that the overall situation is improved. I simply do not believe that to be true; in my view, there are a great many things that we might agree in principle are problematic or harmful, but that are already at their maximum utility under current arrangements, and state action can only serve to increase the total harm to society. Or, conversely, that the utility function can be maximized by reducing the state involvement.

I would suggest that the blindspot of liberals is particular acute in three theoretical, and related, areas: unintended consequences, long-term utility calculations, and the general capacity of the state. Start with unintended consequences. For whatever reason, a fair number of liberals seem to think that policies aren’t particular dynamic, that you can institute changes A, B, and C  and get beneficial effects E,F, and G that outweigh negative consequences J, K, and L without also  getting surprise results X, Y, and Z.

But society is complicated! Predicting human behavior is difficult. Virtually nothing functions even 95% as intended. And perverse incentives and disappointing results are almost always the norm. The odds of getting a highway project in under budget is 50/50 at best. At best. The odds of getting the ACA to work as intended is probably way, way worse than that. We’re already seeing numbers on some aspects of it come in so far away from projections that it’s laughable. Now, does that make the ACA bad policy? Not necessarily. But it does mean that we have to apply a severe discount to the utility of proposed solutions when we consider them ex ante. And certainly more of a discount than most liberals are willing to apply.

Second, long-term calculations. Whatever the immediate unintended consequences of state action are, they pale in comparison to the long-term unknown consequences. Was Medicare a good idea in 1965? Probably. Would we have thought it quite as good of an idea  if we knew the way senior health care costs were going to skyrocket over the following 50 years? Probably not. Would we have changed our mind then knowing what we know now? I doubt it. But would we have done things differently? Almost for sure.

And that’s the point: we can’t see the future 6-months down the road, and we sure as hell can’t see it 50 years down the road. That doesn’t mean we have to throw our hands up in the air, announce we have no crystal ball, and stop doing anything. But it should lead us to some humility and some conservative thinking about the capacity of the state to ameliorate problems. Short-term solutions are the easiest thing in the world, since you can borrow money and happiness from the future. But that doesn’t make them automatically less harmful than doing nothing. Liberals tend, in my experience, to forget this.

Finally, the capacity of the state. This kills me, every time I talk about it, because liberals often refuse to accept it even in principle. Here’s the concept: when you empower the state to do good, you inherently increase its capacity to harm. Period. Now, the classic examples — like The Road to Serfdom — are, in my mind, overcooked quite a bit. It’s not the case that centralizing control over a democratic economy will inevitably lead to a tyrannical non-democratic state at some point down the road. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a danger, or that it’s a danger you can ignore. If you want to maximize the possibility that there is never a police state in America, you can start by radically shrinking the military, the police force, and the tax base of the federal government. And when you don’t do that — when you instead increase the capacity of the state, you are creating the infrastructure necessary for negative uses of the state.

Now, like I said, you don’t want to think of this at The Road to Serfdom level. Instead, think about things like agricultural subsidies. If you are a liberal and you are appalled by the amount of money the federal government gives away to big farming, stop and think about the roots of the policy: 19th and 20th century price supports for family farmers. Same thing with corporate welfare policies, or with the income  tax code. Good lord, the tax code. I would contend that if you support basically any tax breaks for anything (i.e. child tax credits, charitable giving deductions, etc.), you are merely setting the stage for massive corporate loopholes and carried interest tricks. The only way to avoid them is to stick with a neutral principle, like no credits/deductions for anything. I’m serious. The moment you allow the state to take on projects for the greater good, it will inevitably have the capacity — even if it’s only the intellectual ability to dream — to take on projects that benefit the rich, or the powerful, or both.

Again, does this mean nothing is worth the state’s doing? Not by a longshot. But it has to be part of the calculation if you want to be a realist. And at the policy level, there’s not much worse than a liberal dreamer. Actually, that’s not true: there are my parents, who I’m pretty sure drove me to libertarianism. Because they embodied the worst of all of the above blindspots, with one gut-punching twist: they knew the limitations and problems of the state, but they didn’t care. Both of them were mainstream young 60’s liberals, the kind of people who thought McCarthy was awesome in ’68 but were more likely to support RFK. Probably just like the modal middle-class northeastern 19-year olds of the day.

Anyway, they pared this sunny liberal optimism with an absolutely ridiculous level of cynicism about the government’s ability to solve problems. Never saw a highway project they didn’t curse at. Never watched the news without ripping into the inefficiency of the bureaucracy. And absolutely hated the post office and the DMV. And yet this cynicism did not stop them from endorsing ever-greater government interventions into the economy and society! My nickname for this was cynical liberalism. My father, arguing till the cows come home about how we need to expand Medicare and Social Security, only to 20 minutes later be complaining about how the federal government couldn’t tie it’s shoes for less than $20. And if you pressed him on it, he’d say something absurd like, “Well, we have to try! We can’t just do nothing!”

And that’s the point. We can do nothing. In fact, we are obligated to do nothing when doing nothing is the solution that maximizes the utility of society and the individuals within it.  That’s why I titled this the cost of good intentions. Because sometimes, as hard as it is to do, the best solution is to simply walk away from the problem. It’s cliche, but sometimes the cure really is worse than the disease. Even whey you are trying to help the worst off in society.

And so while my beef with conservatives is that they are too willing to underestimate the magnitude of state harm when weighing it against the utility of state intervention, my beef with liberals is that that tend to discount whole categories of harms that detract from the utility of state intervention in society. Like I said, some problems — when put into a cost/benefit analysis — are best “solved” by doing nothing. My sense is that not enough liberals understand this.

A final example: handgun bans. I’m pretty sure that nothing drives me battier when talking to liberals — and I mean nothing — than discussing handguns. I don’t think there’s an issue out there (well, maybe agricultural subsidies) that turns some liberals into daydreamers faster. They are incredulous at the idea that reducing guns doesn’t always reduce gun crime, and in some cases may increase it. They refuse to accept that there are hundreds of millions of handguns currently in the United States, and that they aren’t going anywhere, legal or illegal. They can’t stand the idea that almost no murders are committed with legally-possessed handguns. It just annoys the hell out of them to hear a pro-handgun argument, even when I make my basic “I don’t love handguns either, but you have to be a realist about the effects of banning them” monologue.

But the cherry on top is watching them react to any sort of “protection from the state” argument. I swear, you mention the idea that gun ownership protects people from state tyranny, and pretty much every liberal immediately makes some joke about Joe Sixpack stopping a U.S. military tank with his handgun. But I think this precisely misreads the situation on two levels. The first is the factual: anyone who has ever watched the youtube videos from Iran knows that the tyrannical state doesn’t maintain its grip by employing tanks everywhere; there’s simply not enough money to do that. Instead, it relies on thugs and other ill-trained militia to terrorize citizens with knives, clubs, and small arms. You watch the video of a man being assaulted on his own front lawns by one or two state thugs with knives and clubs, and it become self-evident that such practices simply would not be possible in a society with as many homeowner firearms as the United States.

But leave that aside, because that’s the stuff of Road to Serfdom overcooking. The real reason I think the handgun bans make perfect sense to liberals is largely tied up in the blindspots I’ve pointed out in this essay. The belief that the state can be employed to solve or at least mitigate almost any problem corresponds to an unwillingness to see non-governmental solutions or mitigations to serious problems. The vast majority of people who own handguns own them for one specific non-sporting reason: to protect their families from harm within their own homes. But that brings us full-circle to the role of the state in the libertarian worldview: the prevention of harm to the non-harming individual. Any state action that reduces the number of handguns that exist solely for home defense must begin by admitting that the policy, on its face, is going to increase harm to the non-harming individual. And that places the tough burden of proof on those who seek the state power to do so. I don’t own a gun, I don’t think I ever would. But I have very little sympathy for those who think we should be taking them away from non-harming individuals.


4 Responses to Why I’m a libertarian, part two: the cost of good intentions

  1. John on February 15, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    Is this statement — “Here’s the concept: when you empower the state to do good, you inherently increase its capacity to harm” — actually true, historically? When I think of despotic states that ran roughshod over their people, I don’t think of states that tried to bring universal health care to old folks and then just got a little carried away. I follow the general premise, no doubt, but I wonder if the cause of the state doing harm has anything to do with how liberal its policies are. Rather, some states get taken over by bad actors and do terrible crap, while others don’t, the liberal or conservative nature of their laws completely notwithstanding.

    Also, take this paragraph and change a few words:
    For whatever reason, a fair number of [doctors] seem to think that [drugs] aren’t particular dynamic, that you can [attempt to cure symptoms] A, B, and C and get beneficial effects E,F, and G that outweigh negative consequences J, K, and L without also getting [side effects] X, Y, and Z. [The human body] is complicated! Predicting [drug-patient interactions] is difficult. Virtually [no chemically synthesized small molecule interacting in a sea of biological macromolecules] functions even 95% as intended. And perverse incentives [to make a profit] and disappointing results [of now-dead and no-longer-paying patients] are almost always the norm. The odds of getting a [drug that works in a model system] is 50/50 at best. At best. The odds of getting [that same drug] to work [in humans] as intended is probably way, way worse than that. We’re already seeing numbers on [any clinical trial] come in so far away from projections that it’s laughable. Now, does that make [attempting to cure cancer] bad policy? Not necessarily. But it does mean that we have to apply a severe discount to the utility of proposed solutions when we consider them ex ante. And certainly more of a discount than most liberals are willing to apply.

    Not surprisingly, I think that, despite the above paragraph being 100% true, that is no reason not to keep trying to improve human health through research. So why shouldn’t the same logic apply to government? Millions of Americans lack health insurance and suffer because of it, so yeah, let’s try to improve the overal health care system. That there will be unintended consequences — that can be dealt with when they arise — is not something I think liberals overlook, and I don’t think failure to predict and/or speculate on unintended consequences is the same thing as not thinking they will arise.

    Likewise, what problems are actual liberals actually trying to address right now that would best be solved by doing nothing? Well, what gets liberals fired up (taking me as an example):
    1) Gay rights. Right now, the federal government denies equal rights to gays, so yes, I think I’d like the federal government to do something about that
    2) Environment. The short term benefit to any industry doing anything to mitigate either dumping toxic chemicals into the water or overfeeding antibiotics to their livestock or sending carbon into the atmosphere is currently zero, so yes, I think that government needs to be strongly involved in all of these areas, because the alternative of doing nothing is clearly not working.
    3) Constant wars overseas. This is the government doing too much, and we’d like to see them do less.
    4) Income inequality. Someone who already has a lot of money can live off the money he makes from that money, called capital gains and taxed at 15%, while someone who doesn’t have a lot of money and thus has to work and make income which can be taxed at 20 – 35%, is not not something that we want the government to do something new about, but rather just change the rules to some different rules. Is ‘changing laws’ inherently a liberal thing by your definition, i.e. lowering one tax rate and raising another?
    5) [and I bring this up only because you mention it, I personally don’t get fired up about this issue] Guns. I think most liberals don’t object to guns per se, but rather the apparent ease by which people can get guns that clearly aren’t for self-protection but rather for killing lots of people really quickly, i.e. assault weapons, automatics, etc. I have zero problem with my neighbor keeping a gun in his house. I have a major problem with gang members having easy access to AK-47s. Right now, there are lots of examples of innocent bystanders being shot but not a lot of examples of innocent civilians succumbing to ill-trained government-sponsored militia assaults on their front lawns. As such, I’d argue that we haven’t gotten to strict in our gun laws but rather need to strengthen them.

    • Matt on February 16, 2012 at 9:30 am


      Thanks for the comments. I’ll start by responding to the easiest stuff first. And I’ll keep it brief.

      1. Gun control. I think we’re in agreement. I don’t care about the assault weapons ban, I think it’s probably good policy. Same with background checks, waiting periods, and limits on the number of handgun purchases an individual can make per month. All fine. But most liberals object to the basic holding in D.C. vs. Heller, which is that the state cannot bar you from owning a simple, non-automatic firearm in your own home for the purpose of personal protection. I just fundamentally disagree. And like I said, I don’t think you have to get all Road to Serfdom about the tyrannical state to see the benefits of legal handgun ownership. Disarming the non-harming population in its own home is an invitation to increased home invasions by criminals carrying illegal guns. And, as I stated in the post, even if you put a blanket ban on handguns, there will still be several hundred million of them roaming the United States.

      2. Gay rights. You know how I feel about this: governments should not be discriminating in regard to sexual orientation. Period. Nor should they be discriminating based on marital status. Period.

      3. Income inequality. I could honestly care less about the inequality of wealth in the United States. What I do worry about the absolute condition of the poor. If we could double the happiness/wealth/conditions of the poor by increasing the wealth of the Top 1% tenfold, I’d make the trade in a heartbeat. And I hope liberals would too. But I worry that liberal beliefs on the matter aren’t driven by concerns for the conditions of the poor, but by animosity at the rich. Now, if the only way to help the poor is to reduce the wealth of the rich, then sure, do it. But don’t make hindering the rich a goal in and of itself. There’s no amount of money that’s “too much” or “undeserved.” It simply does not matter how rich the rich are, independent of anything else. And I dont’ think changing laws is inherently liberal! Not at all. Hell, I’m for tearing down tons of laws. And the tax code is where I’d start! (But we can save that for a future post).

      4. Wars. You know I’m against virtually all of them. For me, the state deserves to have a handgun in its home in case an intruder comes to harm it. But that’s it. Everything else and the costs start to outweigh the benefits.

      5. I agree with you about environmental controls. That’s certainly an issue in which the long-term costs are well-understood and accounted for by liberals. I’m still a skeptic as to the ability of us to do things like reverse global warming through positive action, but from the point of view of conservation and clean air an clean water, I don’t think there’s anything I disagree with. Some libertarians are very atomistic about human beings — everyone do whatever they want right now so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else right now — but I don’t really it see it that way, as I outlined above. Most of the harm done in society by liberals and conservatives is due to short-term thinking and ignoring long-term costs, so I can’t justify the same libertarian blindspot. Inaction with long-term costs is just as bad as action with long-term costs. We probably agree.

      As for the capacity of the state, I don’t think it’s funamentally a matter of the liberal welfare state transforming into fascism, or anything like that. That’s certainly there: the state that puts together a standing army can always turn it inward against the citizens. But in practicality, it’s more a political issue: if you don’t want state power bent toward the rich and powerful and conservative interests, then don’t empower the state in an attempt to reach liberal goals. I honestly don’t think the New Deal and Bushism are entirely unrelated in the broadest sense of state capacity; when you massively increase the authority of the President in one sphere of action (say, economic planning), you open yourself up to the expansion of the executive in another (Patriot Act, neoconservatism war folly, etc.). I’m not sure I’m explaining this well.

      I have no problem with drug companies or other private entities missing their projections or taking risks in the search for profits or human good. They internalize the risk because they can go bankrupt. When the government takes the same risks or has bad projections or otherwise doesn’t think about costs, we just end up in debt, or with higher taxes. I’m not saying the ACA isn’t worth it. But if it turns out to cost 10 times as much and only delivers 1/3 of what it promised (a 30-fold error), it damn sure won’t have been worth it. And that’s not a crazy possibility.

      I’m sure I’ve convinced you of exactly nothing. But at least you’re still reading.


  2. Reading Week | Matt Glassman on February 24, 2012 at 7:35 am

    […] normatively against affirmative action, but only mildly; it’s within the nexus of my cost-of good-intentions objection to liberalism. I have, however, been saying for over a decade that, as a positive matter, it will […]

  3. […] on your hands is the optimal policy. Managers gonna manage. It’s a corollary to the idea of the cost of good intentions. How often do you hear from people Well, we have to do something. We can’t just let X happen! […]

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