Daniel Kuehn writes elegantly about the inability of libertarianism to hide behind public choice economics. I personally think that the net value added of public choice to our understanding of political economy is sort of scattershot at best but nonetheless I want to bounce off Kuehn’s post to sort of summarize and extend his challenge to libertarianism this way:

“Assuming the following statements are true – 1) public choice economics is, generally speaking, on the money; and 2) that’s why we can’t have nice things, defined here as libertarian…if not utopia, then whatever is a notch or two down from utopia (goodtopia?) – then what is the actual political project of libertarianism?”

This, I think, is a question most libertarians can’t answer or won’t answer, and with good reason. A lot of people, using some sort of parallel but functionally-equivalent axiom in place of the first statement above, use that question to essentially reason themselves to progressivism/liberalism/social democracy. This is what can be really frustrating about engaging with libertarians, because they tend to presume that progressives have some sort of axiomatic or intrinsic preference for state action as a form of problem-solving. There is a more complex discussion to have about this, of course, but the short version is that that if you genuinely convince most progressive people that, in the actual real world, you adopted more libertarian-ish solutions to public policy problems then outcomes would improve then you would find progressives adopt those libertarian-ish solutions. And in fact you see that all the time, everywhere.

The doubly-frustrating thing about this is that, if more libertarians genuinely asked themselves that question you’d have vastly more room for compromise (at least in an cross-ideological sense as opposed to actual political solutions which don’t necessarily follow) that everyone would probably agree would increase utility. The principle of the second-best suggests that libertarians who think that libertarianism for whatever reason, public choice-y or otherwise, is ideal but unstable/unsustainable should be willing to make pretty substantial trade-offs in some areas of public policy to state intervention in order to secure more libertarianism in others. For example, libertarians could genuinely support universal health insurance as the price to be paid for more libertarian labor markets, and I’m sure there are a lot of progressives just waiting to sign that deal. This is the impetus that led to Denmark’s “flexicurity” which hasn’t been perfect – what is? – but which works pretty darn well as a compromise in which stronger tax-and-transfer programs, from a libertarian perspective, are traded for much less regulated labor markets then you tend to see in other European countries.

As a concluding note, it’s worth observing that almost every country with developed-world levels of GDP/capita tends to have political and economic systems that are pretty similar to each other and remarkably so given the diversity of systems of political and economic organization humans have devised over time and still persist to this day. There are some chicken/egg issues but largely it’s probably some of both and people who propose radical changes to the political and economic order should probably spend more time considering why it is the way it is right now.

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