In Defence of Insufficient Government*

There has been a lot of chatter recently about the idea of liberaltarianism: the potential political alliance between libertarians and contemporary left liberals. Being someone who came to libertarianism a few years back from a pragmatic left liberal perspective, I find the idea fairly appealing at the surface level. I certainly feel greater cultural affinities with those on the left than I do with most conservatives: I think libertarians should care about non-political forms of coercion and repression, and don’t have any deep-seated ideological opposition to some degree of social safety net-type redistribution or regulation (where it actually improves outcomes).

The liberaltarian project would require libertarians to shift their focus from instinctively opposing all regulation and instead advocate some types of well-crafted regulation. We can still complain about rent-control to our hearts’ content, but need to go easy on carbon taxes, at least giving them a fair hearing.

I’m very nearly on board with this whole liberaltarian thing. I do think there is such a thing as good government intervention, and in an ideal world I would support a fair bit of it. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Government as an institution is never entirely under our control. It is a complex system in which various individuals (politicians, voters, interest groups, etc) interact to produce an output.

We can’t simply specify the output in advance – this or that particular set of policies – and tell government to produce it. The only way political outputs can be improved in the long term is by thinking about the inputs to the political process. Ideology is important in any political system but isn’t subject to conscious alteration at a societal level. The other important factor, and one much more thoroughly studied by economists, is the constitutional structure within which the game of everyday politics is played.

James M. Buchanan has long insisted that the importance of everyday politics pales in comparison with the meta-rules which provide the context in which the former is conducted. According to Buchanan, we should focus on the process of politics rather than the results. We can’t pick out the good regulations and discard the bad, unless we can specify the constitutional rules which would produce such an outcome.

Sure, there is probably some hypothetical set of policies which would better serve human welfare than a merely protective state, but there is no reason to think that any real-world government will produce anything close. Giving the state the power to take sensible action also gives it the ability to take foolish action. History tells us the latter dominates.

That is why I am not a liberaltarian and think that some form of garden-variety libertarianism (i.e. minarchism or anarchism) is the way to go even if there are significant areas where government could improve outcomes.

*The title of this post is inspired by this (very good) paper by Dwight Lee.


One Response

  1. […] My suspicion is that it’s generally preferable to leave parental sovereignty intact. I worry that if government starts preventing parents from making obviously bad decisi0ns, it will slowly move into preventing more reasonable decisions. I can imagine many people seeing the failure to instill the fear of God in children as a form of abuse. If you really believe infidels are going to spend eternity in a fiery lake, abuse is probably a reasonable characterization. If there were an enforceable rule that government would only intervene in cases which are clearly justified (severe physical abuse, etc), I’d be all for it. I just don’t think any such rule exists. I’m generally in favour of insufficient government. […]

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