Why Libertarians Distrust Political Power, by Steven Horwitz

In mid-July, Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance delivered a talk at the National Conservatism Conference in Washington entitled “Beyond Libertarianism.” The talk is interesting and important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it was one of several talks at that coming out party for “nationalist conservatism” that saw in classical liberalism the source of the social problems they hoped their new vision of conservatism could address. Vance’s talk took this point head-on, arguing that conservatives have to break away from libertarianism’s commitment to individual choice and be willing to exercise political power to fix the ills that he sees libertarian attitudes and policies as having caused. At one point, he says of libertarians:

Libertarians are not heartless, and I don’t mean to suggest that they are. I think they often recognize many of the same problems that we recognize, but they are so uncomfortable with political power, or so skeptical of whether political power can accomplish anything, that they don’t want to actually use it to solve or even address some of these problems.

But to me, ignoring the fact that we have political choices, or pretending that there aren’t political choices to be made, is itself a political choice. The failure to use political power that the public has given is a choice, and it’s a choice that has increasingly had, and I think increasingly will have, incredibly dire consequences for ourselves and our families.

This argument treats libertarian criticisms of political power as either psychological “discomfort” or unexplained “skepticism.” If not that, then the refusal to use political power is the result of ignoring that we have political choices or pretending none are to be made. All of these claims deeply misunderstand the libertarian aversion to the use of political power and ignore the role that such power can often play in causing the very problems further use of such power is hoping to solve.

In fact, the libertarian criticism of political power is deeply rooted in both theory and history. Its most simple formulation is a version of the claim that “ought does not imply can.” Vance argues for a whole variety of ways in which we ought to be using political power to solve social problems, from drug addiction to suicide, to pornography, to the opioid epidemic. In each of those cases he appears to assume that his belief that we ought to make use of political power to address those problems will ensure that such power actually can solve them. What he does not offer is any argument for bridging that gap between ought and can. And it is that gap that is the source of libertarianism’s reluctance with respect to political power. If our understanding of how political power works is such that we have reason to doubt it will serve the public interest as opposed to the private interests of public actors, then our reluctance to deploy it is not a matter of discomfort or skepticism, but of a grounding in political economy.

I need not run through the entire apparatus of public choice theory to make this point, but it should be enough to note that once one adopts the assumption of behavioral symmetry between market and political actors, much of the critique of political power follows fairly easily. For libertarians, political actors are assumed to be no more altruistically motivated or smarter than market actors. The political process is seen as an alternative to the market process as a way for people to accomplish their goals through various forms of exchange. Given that none of us has access to what constitutes the “public interest,” and that most policy decisions involve conflicts of interest that have to be negotiated away, political processes will always involve the same sort of broadly self-interested bargaining as in the market. The institutions of politics do not provide the quality of feedback necessary for actors to know they have strayed from the public interest and the signals and incentives required to correct their behavior. This is the source of the “ought-can” gap: we can demand that the political process do many things, but demanding it does not ensure that it will happen.

The long history of government failures can be understood by deploying this framework. To take the classic economic example, consider that the federal government has run budget deficits almost every year since World War II despite the fact that macroeconomic theory said deficits should only be run when the economy needed a boost. Clearly, political actors have not served the public interest here, despite the urging of so many experts to deploy political power wisely to solve various economic problems. The self-interest of political actors to preserve and expand spending and avoid tax increases leads to an emergent outcome that is no one’s intention and that is socially harmful. The feedback processes of politics are unable to provide sufficient error correction. The libertarian reluctance to use political power is a recognition of this history, and other examples like it, that illustrate how individual choices do not generally lead to socially beneficial outcomes when the institutional framework does not provide that feedback sufficiently well.

Finally, Vance misses an important part of the libertarian argument against political power by creating a false impression about how libertarians would respond to social problems. In several places, he lists various social outcomes he thinks are problematic and then puts in the mouths of libertarians the argument that they are just the “consequence of free choices” or the mistaken choices of parents, so we should not worry about them. What this overlooks is the way in which poor institutions and policies can change the incentives and knowledge facing individuals, leading them to make choices that, in the aggregate, lead to socially problematic outcomes. We see this in the US health care system, where bad policies have created incentives for over-spending, and in the financial system, where bad policies incentivized poor choices by both lenders and borrowers, contributing to the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession.

In some sense, those outcomes along with the ones Vance lists in his article, are the unintended outcome of human choices. And perhaps even “free” choices at that. However, that doesn’t mean that libertarians would have no objections to those choices and their outcomes. What Vance’s libertarian strawman is missing is that poor choices and undesirable social outcomes can result from the same set of considerations that underlie the libertarian objections to political power – the role played by institutions in providing incentives and knowledge to make people aware of errors and provide incentives for correction. Many of the social problems that Vance points to, especially those around drug use and its relationship to health care provision, are not taking place in some sort of pure environment of choice. Rather those choices are affected by the institutional incentives created by decades of policy interventions driven by the belief that political power can solve social problems. Libertarians can recognize the problematic nature of those choices not as a matter of people not knowing what’s best for them, but instead as the predictable result of distorted incentives and signals coming from poor institutions and policy interventions.

The reluctance of libertarians to use political power to try to solve social problems is not mere discomfort or some unexplainable skepticism about such power. That reluctance is rooted in an understanding of the way institutions frame our choices by providing, or failing to provide, the knowledge and incentives necessary to transform self-interest into public benefit. Having seen how prior political action distorted those signals and incentives in ways that created social problems, and understanding how political institutions do not provide powerful enough signals and incentives to correct those mistakes, libertarians fear the use of political power precisely because they have deep reasons to think it will make matters worse.

Vance and other nationalist conservatives can develop long lists of problems they’d like the state to solve, but until they can make the case that they have bridged the “ought-can” gap, they will not only fail to persuade libertarians of the benefits of political power, they will likely exacerbate the very social ills they hope to remedy.


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