Continuing the Campaign against Ignorance

In an earlier post I noted the unwillingness of Australian academics to engage with the best libertarian literature in the world, i.e. from the Cato Institute, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, the Independent Institute & the economics faculty at Chicago University and George Mason University. I gave the example of John Quiggin’s off-hand dismissal of libertarian ideas in an opinion piece. He responded in comments, with words to the effect that: (1) there are numerous practical problems with libertarian ideas; (2) it has already been debated to death; and (3) the public is not ready for it yet.

I have now searched through Quiggin’s (impressive) publications record and found his article engaging with public choice theory. So while I was wrong to say that Professor Quiggin is ignorant of the literature, he seems to have concluded that libertarianism has been “proved…[not] workable”. I find this an astoundingly inaccurate claim, given the sheer number of libertarian ideas that have been successfully adopted here and overseas (not to mention the libertarian Nobel Prize winners who have contributed to the mainstream body of thought).

Although Quiggin may not be ignorant, there is undoubtedly a general problem of ignorance. Perhaps this is because when libertarian ideas are adopted, due credit isn’t given. For example, it’s not widely recognized that the Productivity Commission’s agenda of “microeconomic reform” and “deregulation” is a product of intellectual contributions by the libertarian greats — not by conservatives. 

The ‘campaign against ignorance’ must continue, especially in Arts Faculties. It may also be useful to bookmark a list of important Wikipedia pages. These can be passed on to friends who are skeptical about the efficacy of libertarian ideas and have fallen victim to the falsehood that our recommendations are based purely on ideology. Here is a suggestive, but by no means comprehensive, list:

What is needed is to get people to engage with libertarian ideas explicitly, without using easy conservative targets as a sideshow. Conservatives have absolutely no intellectual foundation. Libertarians do. Someday, I would like to see an Australian academic write a book titled “Why Milton Friedman was wrong: a critique of Capitalism and Freedom”. However, it may be that engagement of a less explicit nature will have to suffice until there are more libertarian academics in our universities.

30 thoughts on “Continuing the Campaign against Ignorance

  1. (3) the public is not ready for it yet.

    I think he’s partially right on this one. Not ready and/or unwilling. You can enforce socialism or conservatism with a gun to a large extent, from the top down. But libertarianism has to come from ethical, rational and voluntary actions, from the bottom up for the most part. It can only be won by the battle of ideas.

    (This is partially why it’s extremely hard to get elected on a libertarian platform. We haven’t transcended the ‘social animal’ even though we are a pretty rational bunch.)

  2. I also think that (3) is correct when it comes to politics. But the public never will be ready for these ideas unless there are people out there fighting for them.

    And I’m not sure if the public was ready for a number of great ideas in history anyway. I don’t think readiness is a sufficient excuse to pursue bad public policy.

  3. The status of global warming in the western mindset has been a big setback for the concept of small government. I don’t think the current mood and tone of history is exactly ripe for a libertarian revolution of ideas.

    What does it take for libertarianism make inroads? I think the revelations of the destructions wrought by extreme socialism, and the ridiculous inefficiencies of the soviet system have changed public opinions on state economic control. And I think the link between capitalism and the benefits of China’s transformation will become more apparent as its economic success continues.

    On a slower scale, I think liberty in the social, non-economic sense will continue to make progress. The social conservatives have a very hard task – western societies naturally seems to want to become more socially liberal, possibly because of the relatively greater political and culture influence of young people than they have had historically.

  4. You don’t want to be implying that Quiggin is some sort of reasonable person with a grasp of economics. Why bring him up at all? One ought only bring Quiggin up in order to put him down. He is an enemy of liberty.

  5. Winston, the problem is not “the status of global warming in the Western mindset” but “the status of global warming as a fact”.

    Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the reality of AGW is open to question. It is still a big problem for libertarianism that its appeal depends on a hypothesis about physical science. Once you concede even the possibility of AGW, and its implications for policy, you have to abandon the kind of a priorism that characterizes much libertarian thinking.

  6. It is still a big problem for libertarianism that its appeal depends on a hypothesis about physical science.

    It’s not a problem at all John. Have you read Julian Simon’s classic book The Ultimate Resource 2 and fully familiarised yourself with his arguments? It would be good if you could read it and offer your rebuttal at a later date.

    Simon is the father of the free-market environmentalism movement. It’s possible to accept the AGW science wholeheartedly and still show how big government solutions are not the answer.

  7. Once you concede even the possibility of AGW, and its implications for policy, you have to abandon the kind of a priorism that characterizes much libertarian thinking.

    Oh, Quiggs! Global warming must be a social democrat’s wet dream. Finally, you potentially have your ‘lifeboat scenario’, your justification for intrusive government action that actually adheres to reason and empirical evidence rather than hollow emotional cries. You guys must be as excited about this as the conservatives are to get a war!

    Mate, the thing is once the war is over there is no ethical excuse not to go back to a liberal democracy. If you want to keep your government program justified you’re going to have to prevent the problem from getting a permanent technological or market based solution. Or at least keep the AGW boogie-man alive in people’s minds. You guys wouldn’t do that, would you?

  8. Sukrit, you’re quite right that “It’s possible to accept the AGW science wholeheartedly and still show how big government solutions are not the answer.” but wrong to cite Simon as a source for this. Simon relied heavily on false factual claims about science to deny the existence of many problems, rather than putting forward market based solutions to those problems.

    Mick, you’re taking a position that’s fairly common among libertarians that if AGW science is right, social democracy is justified. I wish it was that easy! I think you’d be better off with Sukrit’s line.

  9. John, I did say ‘potentially have your ‘lifeboat scenario’, it’s still not guaranteed. I am completely in line with Sukrit. I just agree that this is one of those few things that potentially may justify government involvement on a grand scale. But the evidence isn’t there yet. Indeed, I personally don’t believe it will be the case. Which in itself is a fear of those who want this justification and take the line ‘if we wait for solid evidence and formulate appropriate courses of action it will be too late, we must act now in a big way’.

  10. John, I don’t think it makes much of a difference characterising AWG as popular opinion or fact, my point is that the current public mindset makes it impossible for libertarian ideas to make any penetration.
    AWG has revived a new type of wider environmental movement. After the credibility of communism was debunked, socialists have been desperate for a new target to protest against, and environmental degradation at the fault of economic growth is a pretty obvious one. AWG has simply made the issue mainstream and formed a block for any serious acceptance of libertarian/ small government/ unrestricted trade ideas.

    BTW, my personal opinion is that it is only rational for non-scientists such as myself to accept the prevailing scientific consensus on AWG.

  11. Quiggin’s dissing libertarian ideas now is he? LOL

    How about Quiggin being put on the defensive and ask him if he still supports the propositions in that stupid book he wrote in 1994 that suggested full employment was impossible without massive levels of government expenditure in government financed “people services”. Does he still maintain his denialist claim that we could never have full employment again?

    How about the professor explains his stand why he’s opposed most economic reforms since the 80’s that have improved our living standards.

    This is the guy who thinks libertarians ought to be on the defensive? This is like being in a parallel universe. Or more like going into a sheltered workshop and explaining string theory with this guy.

    When he accuses others of being denialists maybe he ought to look in the mirror, as he would see an economic denialist staring right back in fear.

    What was the name of that book, John? “Jobs For All”….?

    Did it have a forward by Groucho Marx?

  12. That reminds me, what did Groucho once say:

    “He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you, he really is an idiot.”

    John, it would be far better you going off and trying to connect the tobacco lobby to the SARS virus or the Flu, that way we can quickly invoke the Rothman’s law to declare you the immediate debate loser.

    For anyone who doesn’t know. The Rothman’s law is invoked the moment John raises the issue of the tobacco lobby as the silver bullet to all nefarious goings on.

  13. I’m not the one that compares IP addresses with Lambert, John or threaten to sue 1/2 of cyber space like a big mary cry baby like you.

    You’re still doing that right?

    The topic is about you and your dishonest stupidity, so it’s ” normal” to discuss the topic at hand.

    I’ll make a deal deal with you. I’ll never refer to you again if you apologize to ll the victims for your head-kicking and bullying over the years.

    A public apology on your site is fine.

  14. Sukrit Sabhlok wrote “Conservatives have absolutely no intellectual foundation”.

    Actually, there is – quite a bit. This appears to be a case of unawareness rather like the one you make against John Quiggin in relation to Libertarianism. To start you off looking in the right direction I’ll give you Viscount Falkland’s 17th century precept: “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change”. Probe into that and you’ll find issues of transition costs for both reform and reaction, and also issues of unknown dangers of proposed change that a successfully achieved change has either found not to exist (unlike the ones in changes that fail), or else which amount to sunk costs that have already been paid and can’t be eliminated any more. Further analysis of this sort shows that a strategy of continuing change is like a roulette system – bound to destroy your stake in the end, and not having reached that point is not evidence against that point existing.

    But I don’t need to go into that here, I only have to show that there is a whole area needing exploring before you can wave things away like that.

  15. I take conservative to mean the plain English meaning of the word, ie. a preference for the status quo.

    There’s no intellectually defensible case for saying “This is the way things have always been. So this is the way things must always be”. It’s an intellectually vacuous position.

    On the other hand, if you take ‘conservative’ to mean well planned, measured change is better than radical, fast change, then that’s something I’d agree with.

    For example, if you want to privatise all the universities and end government spending on higher ed (as I do) then I agree it should be announced in a policy statement years in advance, and should be implemented in a phased manner. This is the only aspect of ‘conservatism’ that is defensible.

  16. ‘There’s no intellectually defensible case for saying “This is the way things have always been. So this is the way things must always be”. It’s an intellectually vacuous position.’

    Change “must” to “should”, and it is far from vacuous. The argument rests on two ideas, that that arrangement has passed the test of time, and that the arrangements are a match for what we ourselves are (granted, at least partly because they partly formed us; so?).

    “On the other hand, if you take ‘conservative’ to mean well planned, measured change is better than radical, fast change, then that’s something I’d agree with” has the problem that it has no place to say “stop”. Without that, it just means you run your roulette system slowly – but you still get a random walk leading into unforeseen problems sooner or later, eventually even ruin.

    Rather than asserting vacuousness, why not examine what’s out there on the subject? That, after all, is what you recommend to the likes of John Quiggin when the subject is Libertarianism.

  17. Getting back to (3), if libertarians assume power in Canberra, the first thing to do will be to give power to local counties, by-passing the states! Give people freedom, and let them make what they will with it! Other revolutions had troubles imposing more bureaucracy on people, but we’d be removing bureaus!
    After all, the war for Independence in America had only about 1/3 support from the American people- 2/3 simply wanted to accept the status quo. Which means that libertarians should not be intimidated by small numbers of supporters; once the changes are in place, the average person will accept them.

  18. You cannot give people freedom, you can only abandon them. And, the American precedent is one of “forced to be free” (the “Sons of Liberty” mostly used terrorism to make Loyalists keep their heads down). Yours is the reasoning of the French Revolution or of Communist dictatorship by cadres until the poeple were “ready”.

    If people do not accept what you offer, resorting to fraud or force will not deliver it because it will make your gift into something else far worse.

  19. Who is ‘You’, P.M.? ‘You cannot give people freedom..’
    You could use that as an excuse to do nothing! Don’t give the coloured slaves freedom, since that is abandoning them!
    I think of it as removing the shackles that governments place on people. I would say, in my best pompous voice, ‘You cannot give people freedom, but you can unshackle them!’
    A libertarian party could unshackle us from top-heavy federalism, from rampant statism, from promiscuous regulations, from all the bureaucratic bars that hem us all in!
    And I don’t know who would be using fraud or force, but it would not be me! If our party assumes power at the ballot box, we would have a mandate to devolve power from Canberra to the regions, and we would be undoing Commonwealth tax authorities, and returning money to the voters. Where is the fraud or force? My comment about 1/3 and 2/3 Americans was used to show that most people accept what others do, so if we gain electoral power and carry out our program, most people would accept it.

  20. Look Quiggin. Lets see that evidence for the likelihood of more-than-beneficial warming from industrial-CO2-release or could you be quits with your hateful propagandizing on this matter?

    I don’t think thats too much to ask.

  21. “Mick, you’re taking a position that’s fairly common among libertarians that if AGW science is right, social democracy is justified. I wish it was that easy! I think you’d be better off with Sukrit’s line.”

    Good point by the way.

  22. Very nice example, NG. That is precisely why the British did not do that with their slaves, instead going through a transitional “tutelage” stage. In fact, there was even a slave revolt against emancipation until it was made clear that this wasn’t what was going to happen.

    But to clarify, I was trying to point out that you – or he, or they, or whoever – cannot “give” freedom but can only let people alone. For them to become free is not guaranteed, since unless they exercised their freedom appropriately, and had the resources for it, they would perish or just fall into someone else’s clutches. However, the sort of “giving” you were describing goes further and does worse, because it isn’t a negative withdrawal of constraints but a positive intervention – and that’s not freedom, ipso facto.

    And if you don’t see that there is both fraud and force in your last sentence, you have already become one of those who sees no moral problem in doing things once there is a vote behind it – the idea that vote makes right.

  23. PM, that raises an interesting problem- how do you imagine a libertarian society will be instituted here in Australia? You don’t seem to approve of voting, so how do you think such a transition would be managed? If vote does not make right, then I guess that means no political party for you. So how will you do it?
    I, like you, also have qualms about democracy, and the premise that numbers are all that matter, but I am prepared to use them if we can, though it won’t be the only way that I hope to change things. (I am working on The Great Australian Libertarian Novel, which will convince everyone to overthrow the governments at every level, and just reading the book should instantly make you a better person; but that is for the future.)

  24. Well, first off, NG, I’m not a Libertarian in the usual sense of the word anyway. At a deep philosophical level I’m an anarchist, meaning that I find all claims to moral authority to rule vacuous. Even Divine Right of Kings makes more sense than “the people”, because you can see that the latter is a mere collectivity but you can only agree to disagree about whether God said so. In the day to day sense I’m a small-c or social conservative, which of course only helps if “reformers” haven’t been white-anting it all away even before trying to implement their reform. You know, replying to “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” with “let’s break it so they have to go for change” – burning bridges or boats to bar retreat.

    But that moral aspect is what I was getting at: not the tactical use of voting within a system that exists, but your assertion that it would be OK to force freedom on people who didn’t want it if only you could get a “democratic” mandate for it from the rest. Your earlier comment wasn’t about the tactics, you raised that just now.

    If we only talk tactics, there are deeper strategic problems. One is that people who play the game get captured, e.g. Democrats trying to keep the bastards honest make compromises that accumulate until they too become what they once opposed. Another is that trying the tactics and failing lends actually support to the system. Even among Libertarians, opinion is divided about using these tactics because of these issues. Me, I think the best bet is the one the Irish used in the long 19th century, of having a political arm participating in the system but then using parliamentary tricks to jam everything up (join and sabotage), with a separate wing working outside the system. In the Irish case, that meant violence, but it could equally well be doing things like what Kevin Carson calls “building the new within the shell of the old”. He has in mind building a new society to take over, I think more in terms of having it ready both to transmit the ideas and to have an alternative ready to move promptly as, when and if the old order either collapses or fades away. In any case, merely having a poltical wing to keep the bastards occupied runs less risk of capture and more realistic objectives than having a whole structure trying to do stuff.

  25. An interesting set of ideas, Mr. Lawrence. That G.A.L.N. which I am writing incorporates some elements of that- an undercover cop is assigned the task of infiltrating some ‘United Underdogs’ gang which helps drug-peddlars get out of prison. The cop finds that they’re into insuring what are called victimless crimes, and are practicing libertarians who support Capitalism. Eventually, when he finds out that the authorities want to imprison an inventor for life because he invents a phone that can’t be intercepted, he joins the gang totally, becoming the boss. This crew would also use metal weights for money, disguised as amulets and good-luck charms.
    So we actually have some ideas in common.
    But I am not an anarcho-capitalist. I think that we can convert local counties into road-holding companies, and we can then give property-owners absolute rights of property, so the ‘public’ companies would still be there, as share-holder companies, open to all to become voting citizens. Anyone could still use the facilities, but only citizens could vote, or become public officials.
    from Underdog United local #1, “Liberating Victimless Underdogs”.


    In his initial blogpost, Sukrit said:

    [I]t’s not widely recognized that the Productivity Commission’s agenda of “microeconomic reform” and “deregulation” is a product of intellectual contributions by the libertarian greats — not by conservatives.

    There’s a good reason for that: the PC utilises an analytical framework that draws strongly (though not solely) on the sub-discipline of public economics, and that encapsulates a broad conception of market failure informed by sociological, psychological and other research (not just by economic theory), the upshot being that it often advocates government intervention. As such, the PC is not limited by the intellectual constraints of Libertarian philosophy. Indeed, Libertarianism doesn’t even rate a mention in the Commission’s own 30 year history, published a few years ago, and I know of only one mention of Libertarianism in a PC report – on page 10.23 of its 1999 Gambling report – a report that recommended significant government intervention, not only to protect people from others but also to protect them from themselves!

    Of course, it is true that, in many instances, the PC’s findings and recommendations would coincide with the views of Libertarians, but, equally, its recommendations would at other times coincide with the views of social democrats.

    To be fair, the PC’s understanding of the extent of government failure might also have been informed by the jottings of great scholars past, who happenned to be Libertarian – although one suspects that its extensive inquiries into the “workings” of government programs would have provided more than enough evidence in that respect.

    The key point, however, is that methinks Sukrit’s claim that the PC has a deregulation agenda that is the product of the Libertarian greats is a rather long bow.

  27. Tom N,

    You are being myopic. If you wish to acknowledge the scope of the PCs agenda, then you need to acknowledge the history of economic ideas.

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