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Why I can’t take the construction “libertarian freedom” seriously, part 43,542

[ 52 ] April 13, 2010 |

David Boaz of the CATO institute published an article last week about the relationship of the libertarian vision of freedom with the (American) past. I presume he meant it to serve as a corrective to the good deal of libertarian-flavored rhetoric embracing the American jeremiad about the lost ‘golden age’ in our discourse at the moment. As far as it goes, and if suspend your skepticism about the value and coherence of the libertarian conception of freedom, it seems like a sensible and rather obviously correct piece.

While some libertarians (usual suspects: Levy, Wilkinson) have endorsed this position, it has inspired some bizarre and creative innovations in the field of being hopelessly wrong in others. Jacob Hornberger and his co-blogger Arnold Kling, for example, takes the point about slavery being not entirely consistent with libertarian freedom, and sets about constructing an argument in which the year 1880 serves as the pinnacle of freedom in America. When it is gently pointed out that such an argument could only possibly be made if we ignore the freedom of those other than propertied white males, Kling responds by freaking out and, for reasons that remain quite unclear, typing the words “Stop dehumanizing me!” into the comment box.

But Hornberger and Kling hardly prepare us for Bryan Caplan. The details are still sketchy, but as far as I can tell, the facts are as follows: On the morning of April 12th, 2010, Bryan Caplan, an Associate Professor of Economics and George Mason University and adjunct scholar at the Cato institute, got out of bed, ate breakfast, kissed his wife goodbye, drove to work, sat down at his computer, and wrote a blog post that purported to demonstrate that and I quote, “Women of the Gilded Age were very poor compared to women today.  But from a libertarian standpoint, they were freer than they are on Sex and the City.” This post has required no less than four follow-up posts attempting to further demonstrate the obviously correct nature of this position and reply to various critics. Trying to excerpt a particular passage or point in pretty much pointless, as the whole thing simply has to be seen to be believed. (It’s just peppered with gems like “I’ll admit that coverture doesn’t sound like a very libertarian doctrine.”) That said, I was particularly struck by his response to a commenter who brought up the marital rape, which was oddly not mentioned in the original post. His reply:

To be blunt, this issue is almost entirely symbolic.  While it’s a heinous crime, I seriously doubt that more than a small fraction American women in 1880 worried about being raped by their husbands.

If Caplan bases his ‘serious doubt’ on any actual factual knowledge about the social and gender history of the late 19th century, he’s keeping very quiet about it. A main thread of his reasoning throughout is that a wife’s power within a marriage is pretty much unrelated to both the law and social norms, because…oh, hell I can’t paraphrase this

This is a good example of the difference between the law and social reality.  [so far so good....] If a women in 1880 wanted to write a contract, I think she did the same thing a woman in 2010 would do – talk about it with her husband.  If he refused, she did the same thing she’d do today: complain, argue, bargain, etc.  A man in 1880 was legally allowed to make a contract without his wife’s approval, but in practical terms, his problem was the same as it is today: If your wife puts her foot down, it’s almost impossible to move forward.

It’s one thing to swallow whole the cultural stereotypes of the domineering wife and her henpecked husband, but it’s quite another to transport it back in time 130 years. I can’t help but be reminded of John Stuart Mill: for all the blindingly obvious reasons, but also for the following observation from On The Subjection of Women:  “[O]ne can, to an almost laughable degree, infer what a man’s wife is like, from his opinions about women in general.” Apparently Bryan Caplan is applying the same technique (but across time) to understand the power dynamics of domestic life in 1880′s marriages. At least, I assume that’s what he’s doing, because I’m at a loss to see any other method at work here.

(For more commentary on this exciting new trend in libertarian historiography, take a look at a number of recent posts at Crooked Timber one two three four five)

UPDATE: I mistakenly referred to Kling as Hornberger’s co-blogger, he is in fact Caplan’s co-blogger. I apologize for the error. Kling also feels as though Will Wilkinson misrepresented and distorted his position. I’m not sure exactly how or where Wilkinson distorted his views, but in fairness to Kling, I’ll reproduce here his post on the issue without comment; whether he deserves to be lumped in with the weird wrongness of Hornberger and Caplan is an exercise I shall leave to the reader.

I would rather live with the group-status configurations that we have today than with those that prevailed in 1880. For that matter, I would rather live with the plumbing and dentistry that we have today than that which prevailed in 1880. But it’s a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back in the days of Jim Crow or women’s subservience. Just as it is a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back to using outhouses and having our teeth pulled without anesthetic.

If what you really, really care about are group-status issues, and you really, really think that those battles should be fought politically rather than culturally, and if you are really, really scared of where you think some older Americans stand on those group-status issues, then you can end up where Will Wilkinson is–deeply frightened of the Tea Party movement in spite of its libertarian focus. In that case, your plan is to slip something into the ruling intellectuals’ drink to make them amenable to your free-market seductions.

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  1. Forgive me for not having the patience to go throw every last piece of idiocy and the responses, but has anyone bothered to point out that even working class white men weren’t all that free either (unless you think the only freedoms that mattered were the freedom to vote and the freedom to quit)?

    • Yes. The Crooked Timber threads are very entertaining.

      • Left_Wing_Fox says:

        And somewhat infuriating. So many seem to be dancing around the central points.

        “1880′s were a golden age of liberty!”
        “Yeah, except for women and on-whites”
        “But that’s not going to happen if we give everyone the same economic freedoms that white males enjoyed back then!”

        Well, no. Problem with libertarian philosophy is that it makes “freedom” completely reliant on economic power, and believes that economic self-interest is the most powerful driving force in human behaviour.

        Except plenty of people place morals over economics. If a group has an edge in economic dominance, and believes sexism and racism are morally justified, they will use their economic power to exclude others, and therefore reduce the financial power and freedoms of those other groups.

        With the Hayak thread, so many people were arguing over whether or not “collectivism” or “central planning” lead to tyranny that everyone fails to note the big difference between democratic anything and dictatorial anything: whether or not the government is bound by popular will and rule of law. The economic arguments are utterly secondary to that.

        • hv says:

          Left_Wing_Fox said: “If a group has an edge in economic dominance, and believes sexism and racism are morally justified, they will use their economic power to exclude others, and therefore reduce the financial power and freedoms of those other groups.”

          Look, I’m no libertarian, but I think the argument on this point is that sexism and racism are economically INefficient, so there is at least a force tugging in the other direction that we would have to measure and compare to the force you are describing. In other words, an economic entity that was single race/sex (and mean to other races/sex) might get out-competed by economic entities that employed the best persons of many races/sex.

          I understand there are very few historical examples to bolster this line of argument, but at least they have something that addresses your complaint. This kind of religious faith in abstract economics is the hallmark of libertarianism.

          (Did you know that slave-owners were NOT true libertarians!)

          • To address Left Wing Fox’s desire to get to the root of the libertarian arguments being attacked, it’s pretty much a given that nobody in their right minds thinks laissez-faire capitalism – the dullard’s libertarianism – is ideal. So it’s amusing seeing the squirming around the inevitable horrors produced by such a system rather than the more abstract arguments about the root of it being so blindingly awful.

            The retreat into history must mean that any laissez-faire low-tax manifestation anywhere throughout the ages must also have been Libertopia. That’s a lotta Libertopias.

  2. Martin says:

    There is a more profound fallacy at work here, one that I don’t think anybody’s mentioned. Black Americans were denied citizenship until 1865. So buried in these ruminations is the premise that Kling means “white property-owning males.” That part has been flagged by nearly everybody.

    But if you investigate the question of which American citizens today have a longer lineage in the United States, I suspect that the answer would be black Americans. It’s all well and good for me to bloviate about “my forebears,” but the fact is that my forebears were living in England, Switzerland, and Austria in 1885. (I am a white American male living in New York City.) Such patterns are probably not as true for black Americans.

    If you ask, “did you have relatives living within the borders of the United States in 1950, 1900, 1850, 1800, 1750?” I think many white Americans would drop out of the survey by 1850, if not 1900. For me, the first year that I had relatives in the United States was about 1920.

    So let’s say you bracket the question of the suffering slavery caused. Even if you say, “Who did the work of making America America?” I know for damn sure that the contributions of my ancestors is very recent. Real, but recent. I suspect that black Americans have a more authentic connection to this country, which makes leaving out their nonparticipation in American liberty throughout history all the more objectionable.

    • Martin says:

      Obviously there was no United States in 1750 — substitute the 13 colonies.

    • atheist says:

      Very interesting point, Martin.

      If you want to make the disjuncture between the libertarian paradise of the 1880s, and the actual conditions of most people on that date, you could look at the native americans. They were not only being deeply oppressed as the blacks were, they were being exterminated on a personal, cultural and society-wide level.

  3. Arnold Kling says:

    I am not Hornberger’s co-blogger. My one post on this topic said I am not nostalgic for the 1880′s. Wilkinson totally distorted my views, and this thing just took off from there. I am really bitter, because what I wrote was not even close to what people are saying I wrote.

    I can take being attacked. But first, read what I wrote. And get your facts straight.

    • I’m glad you can take being attacked because you’re kind of a dumbass.

    • Jon says:

      How does an economist come to be so ignorant on taxes? Didn’t anybody ever tell you about death and taxes? The alternative, in Afghanistan and Somalia, is gang violence, rape, and rampant robbery; you still pay, just worse.

      I blame Reagan, personally, for starting a fiscally dangerous line of propaganda to lure you libertarians into foolishly voting GOP even when it means you pay MORE taxes in long-term debt payments. He was lying about we Dems and taxes and GOP budget smallness. The truth is both parties spend out the wazoo, and are both increasing their spending, just on different things. The ONLY CHOICE IS BETWEEN PAYING YOUR CREDIT CARD and paying more later; though I like what we spend on more, there is no big-party small-government choice outside GOP lies.

      Let’s consider, say, the year 1880. Here was a society in which people were free to keep everything they earned, because there was no income tax. …

      You certainly seem way too optimistic to me. People were free to be beaten, lynched (even for saying something unpopular), have their inventions stolen, killed early with fraudulent medicine and nails in their sausage, oh, boy. Blacks were only free to be lynched and continue to work hard for little more than they’d gotten as slaves. Women hardly had any freedoms atall.

      Oh, and some googling on one random point you made about 1880 sez you’re wrong about
      immigration controls. You had to be white or of African descent, you’ll be less than astonished to hear.

      • agorabum says:

        I’m surprised more people haven’t made those arguments about “freedom to eat poisoned food and medicine.” Except when it’s captured by big business, the FDA is generally a good thing. Government began regulating business, ending the “golden age”, because all that ‘freedom’ kept killing people, either through substandard goods or industrial mayhem. And the people being killed (US citizens) didn’t care for it. And the idea that “the market will work, because the killing companies will go out of buisness” is cold comfort to the dead consumer, and completely does not apply to the worker.

        Also, I thought libertarians believed in free trade. There were no income taxes due to the large tarrifs in place on all imports. In that sense, today’s WTO-ized, global economy is far more free and libertarian than in the 1880s.

    • Jon says:

      s I’m so surprised about your attitude on taxes because, can you name one, er, economy, ever, that didn’t have some kind of taxes?

    • Well, yes, I read what you wrote. You weren’t the man who introduced “Teh 1880s Is Teh Decade of Liberty” meme. That was Hornberger. Wilkinson wrote the response, and quite amiably too. But you were the man who wrote the following asinine paragraph attacking Wilkinson:

      If what you really, really care about are group-status issues, and you really, really think that those battles should be fought politically rather than culturally, and if you are really, really scared of where you think some older Americans stand on those group-status issues, then you can end up where Will Wilkinson is–deeply frightened of the Tea Party movement in spite of its libertarian focus. In that case, your plan is to slip something into the ruling intellectuals’ drink to make them amenable to your free-market seductions.

      Personally, I think anyone who dismisses the racism, sexism and (more to the point) massive disenfranchisement found in the 1880s as “group-status issues” is being an asshole. When coming from someone who works with the so-called “Library of Economics and Liberty”, it looks like hypocrisy.

  4. Bruce Webb says:

    Two steps to understanding Bryan Caplan

    One view his official web-sites graphic scheme particularly as to color. Also note that it links at one and the same time his sex themed graphic novel L’Amore Infernale AND serves as the launch pad to the syllabus etc of his various courses offered at GMU.

    Two, and assuming you survive the optic assault and cognitive dissonance follow the link to his Intellectual Autobiography.

    Really the whole effect can’t be summed up, the closert I can get is “Randian Glibertarian on Acid” it really does explain a lot that someone who presents himself as a public intellectual and a tenured professor would use this as his face to the world.

    An even more odd note, the site used to be hosted by GMU.EDU, at least Caplan had the grace to move it to his own domain.

  5. Ken Houghton says:

    “If your wife puts her foot down, it’s almost impossible to move forward.”

    And if she says she doesn’t want to have sex that night, everyone just rolls over and/or takes a cold shower.

    As we can prove anecdotally demonstrate by coomparingthe U.S. birth rates in the late 1800s with, say, the birth rate for the period between the World Wars.

  6. bh says:

    [quote]whether he deserves to be lumped in with the weird wrongness of Hornberger and Caplan is an exercise I shall leave to the reader.[/quote]

    Kling’s post is certainly weird, and it’s certainly wrong, but it’s not quite as creepily misogynist as Kaplan’s. So I guess that’s a difference, though hardly one to get excited about.

    And can we remember this episode next time we’re pressured to treat these clowns as Serious Intellectuals Whose Serious Ideas Should Be Taken Seriously?

  7. bh says:

    Also… since we all know the next attempt at liberaltarianism will be as stupid and pointless as the last one, maybe Kaplan could get a state dept. grant to go to Afganistan and form the Talibertarianban?

    • djw says:

      I’m skeptical of the liberaltarian thing, but it should be said that the alleged ‘liberaltarians’ participants in this particular conversation have been sane and reasonable.

      • bh says:

        That’s fair. I still see very little common ground intellectually, but Levy and Wilkinson’s contributions [i]are[/i] far saner and more sympathetic than the other guys mentioned in the post.

        • bh says:

          … And fwiw, I’m thinking of ‘liberaltarianism’ as the Brink Lindsey-led attempt at forging some sort of alliance between liberals and libertarians, rather than the beliefs of say, Wilkinson and Kerry Howley.

  8. Martin says:

    Caplan: “But from a libertarian point of view, voting is at most instrumentally valuable.”

    Does anybody understand this? I can’t tell if there’s actually something to this libertarian view of voting, or if it’s a convenient way to brush aside one of the most important arguments against him.

    Any sentient adult can plainly see that voting is one of the main pathways to political influence in any democratic society. If you live in a country where half the country has the vote and half the country does not, ipso facto the half controlling the levers of power is subjugating the half that isn’t.

    So, I guess it’s wrong either way, unless someone can explain how the laws of gravity and politics change because a libertarian is the one with the floor.

    • djw says:

      Caplan’s book is The Myth of the Rational Voter which is part of a long tradition of public choice theorists arguing that democracy is (at the same time) meaningless/random and very bad (because it’s not a market). Public choice theory =/= libertarianism, nor should it, but there is a lot of overlap. Ultimately, I think, both groups don’t care for democracy because most people disagree with them. But, of course, none of that amounts to either a) a principled defense of the notion that voting rights are purely instrumental, or b) an argument that the denial of instrumental rights is no big deal if some plausible narrative about how that instrumental value might be delivered can be identified.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        All of this goes back to Schumpeter, right? One of the most influential aspects of Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy has been its rather cynical version of democratic theory, which a certain strain of political science adopted hook, line, and sinker.

        • djw says:

          That’s probably the 20th century intellectual starting point, but a lot of the anti-democratic public choice literature (I haven’t read Caplan’s book, to be clear) tend to demonstrate greater and more direct influence from more overtly economistic analyses of democracy (ie, Downs).

          • gmack says:

            Interesting sidenote: one of the papers on the panel for which I was a discussant at WPSA took the public choice argument and then used it as a justification for re-introducing the use of lottery as a way to select members to deliberative bodies. In the context of this discussion, one might view this as a rather clever effort to turn the apparently anti-democratic (or more specifically, anti-voting) tendencies of this literature and turn it back toward democratic practices.

    • David M. Nieporent says:

      Does anybody understand this? I can’t tell if there’s actually something to this libertarian view of voting, or if it’s a convenient way to brush aside one of the most important arguments against him.

      I thought it was pretty clear: libertarians (unlike many liberals) don’t value democracy for its own sake, but only to the extent it serves to protect individual liberty. To the extent it merely allows majority rule, it has no value to libertarians, whether that majority is voting to segregate schools or voting to impose rent control or to regulate the health insurance industry. To a libertarian, democracy is just utilitarian.

      And if the argument for democracy is utilitarian, then a fortiori, voting is also.

      A libertarian would prefer (if forced to choose) a tiny government with no right to vote at all to a big government where everyone gets their say in how it’s run.

  9. anthony says:

    Caplan illustrates an often forgotten point that rather than being booze hating Christian killjoys, Women’s Temperance Unions were often started because they were tired of being raped by husbands who came home drunk.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      But that is central to Caplan’s point (or would have been had he known anything about the actual 1880s): the existence of the WCTU proves that women had all teh liberty and teh freedom they needed! [/snark]

      When so-called libertarians start defending couverture we really have turned some kind of a corner. I can’t decide if this represents a moment of bracing honesty about what contemporary American libertarianism is about (i.e. white, male privilege) or an indication of the utter meaninglessness of the term “libertarian” in our political culture.

  10. Warren Terra says:

    I like the theme developed at Crooked Timber about how there can’t have been injustice in the 19th century – injustice is inefficient and economically disadvantageous, so it must never have happened.

  11. rea says:

    Would Mr. Kling kindly quit academia and get a job in a nonunion West Virginia coal mine? Show the courage of your convictions, man!

  12. So the Tea Party has a Libertarian focus?
    Wow.
    And there I was thinking that it was a raggle-taggle collection of the angry, the confused and authoritarian wankers…

  13. Professor Fate says:

    Indeed women were free then. Free to work in places like The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory- and get hell smacked out of them by their husbands. And if they tired to do anything about it- they were free to get the hell beat out of them by hired thugs.
    yes indeed the 1880′s were great – just ask any of Jack the Ripper’s vctims.
    Good god how stupid are these people.

  14. Kelly says:

    I think the major problem with libertarianism is how far out it thinks. In chess, the “rule of thumb” is three moves. Expecting people to just “suck it up” or plan for the future is perhaps expecting too much of them. Most people do not think past one day. Many can’t think past a moment of sexual pleasure to the result “nine months later”. An academic cannot even forsee or predict how viral his post could become when he suggested returning to a time when “bars cashed paychecks”.

    As an actress said to the bishop, the color purple is not just about racism.

  15. cer says:

    I am sorry but I had a very difficult time reading beyond this sentence:

    Women of the Gilded Age were very poor compared to women today. But from a libertarian standpoint, they were freer than they are on Sex and the City

    .

    First, I believe there may need to be a feminist Godwin’s law in which any evocation of Sex in the City as emblematic about anything relating to gender in the contemporary United States is immediately rendered null and void.

    Second, he IS aware that Sex in the City is not a documentary? And thus in the development of the scale of relative gender equality he would more appropriately need to be ranking Tess of d’Urbervilles vs. the Sex in the City gals.

    And kill me now for comparing SATC to Thomas Hardy.

    • djw says:

      First, I believe there may need to be a feminist Godwin’s law in which any evocation of Sex in the City as emblematic about anything relating to gender in the contemporary United States is immediately rendered null and void.
      Agreed. But what’s funny about Caplan is that it’s a complete non-sequitor–nothing about the lifestyle/culture/gender politics of that show has anything to do with his argument. The *only* relevant fact, for him, about women in 2010 is the degree of non-gender specific taxes and regulation they’re subject to.

      • hv says:

        Caplan even gets Sex in the City wrong! Women complain about lots of things on that show but taxes… not so much! Has he even see the show??

        .

        (Did you know that if you Google “women’s+issues+course+descriptions”… then search for the text string “tax” in the results, you get no hits for as long as I was willing to persist in clicking through? 10+ ymmv)

  16. ThresherK says:

    If your wife puts her foot down, it’s almost impossible to move forward.

    Sounds like got far too much information on pre-WWI society from the documentary comic “Bringing Up Father”.

  17. J— says:

    From Caplan’s postcard version of his argument (djw’s “than” link, emphasis Caplan’s):

    1. Taxes were much lower and economic regulation much more limited, so all else equal, men and women were much freer than they are today.

    All other points are subordinate or derivative.

  18. [...] [djw]: This seems as good a time as any to recall the a very special moment two years ago when libertarian blogger Bryan Caplan hilariously argued that a women [...]

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