Sam Bowman
Oct 24, 2016 · 3 min read

Thanks for writing this, Dan! And thanks for all your kind words. Even if it’s just put in to be nice (I’m a fan of the “I usually agree with X, but I had to disagree with them on…” opener when you’re really knifing someone) I appreciate it.

My main response is “Great, I knew I called myself a libertarian for a reason.” For sure there are lots of people who hold nearly identical beliefs to me and call themselves libertarians. My claim, in my last piece, is that this particular collection of beliefs is distinct enough from libertarianism proper to warrant its own label. I still like you guys very much, I just want to be clear that in some important respects I’m different to the bulk of libertarians.

And now some libertarian-bashing — reasons one might not want to be one, after reading both our posts and thinking that this broad worldview was pretty good but the word libertarian is catchier, etc.

Libertarians only pretend to be consequentialists who care about empirics. OK, not all of them, but as you suggest in the post, many “consequentialist” libertarians are just using these arguments to try to persuade people. They wouldn’t dream of actually advocating a non-libertarian policy of any substance even if somehow they were convinced that non-libertarian policy was better for measurable outcomes, which itself is very rare for most movement libertarians. Similarly many of them use empirical arguments as weapons more than anything else. I’m generally suspicious when someone’s entire “empirical and consequentialist” worldview still seems to fall perfectly on the road between here and anarcho-capitalism. I know you say that there are lots of degrees of libertarianism, but where are the libertarians who favour a couple of policies that are more statist than the status quo, as we might expect if they were truly consequentialist and empirical in their outlook? (Off the top of my head, some of mine are to do with animal welfare, punishment for minor crimes, the environment and foreign policy — in all these areas I favour policies that are much less libertarian than the status quo.)

Libertarian policies are wronger. Why in god’s name are libertarians so sure that ‘civil society’ could do as much as a state in giving people money? I’d love if it were true. Everyone would love if it were true. Where is the evidence that it is? There is fascinating research done here but nothing like what you’d need to justify pushing the button and destroying all edifices of state welfare if some neoliberal alternative was also on offer. Other stupid libertarian policies: anything to do with monetary policy (sadly, the monetarists have been driven out of the temple); thinking that all taxes on externalities are stupid and/or evil; thinking trade deals are unnecessary and all we need is to not have tariffs; a general refusal to look at the composition of taxes, and an obsession with the level; a hardline all-or-nothing view of IP; and I’m sure there’s plenty more.

Libertarianism isn’t cool. Well, neither is neoliberalism. But we don’t kid ourselves. Libertarianism has a terrible branding problem, because it’s seen as being inflexible, uninterested in the real world, crazy, angry and even dumb. It’s associated with hardcore climate change scepticism and, in the UK at least, opposition to (mainly Muslim) immigration on culturalist grounds. These things aren’t the fault of most of the libertarians I’ve met, but libertarianism is a creature of the internet. The people who call themselves that while ranting on Twitter about the Muslims, especially the ones who use superficially libertarian arguments to do so (and there are plenty), aren’t doing ‘the brand’ any favours.

    Sam Bowman

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    Policy and technology at Fingleton Associates.