Most libertarians have probably had something like the following conversation:

COM: “Hey, I’ve got this neat idea for how to make the world a better place. It’s called communism! What do you think?”

LIB: “Ugh. We’ve tried that already. Look at Mao’s China. Look at Stalin’s Russia. Haven’t we learned by now that communism, however appealing it might be on paper, inevitably degenerates into tyranny?”

COM: “Oh, sure, Mao and Stalin were awful. But that’s because that wasn’t real communism. Real communism is a much more subtle, sophisticated, and humane idea. We just haven’t tried it yet in the right way.

I also suspect that most libertarians have had something like this conversation:

LIB: “Hey, I’ve got this neat idea for how to make the world a better place. It’s called capitalism! What do you think?”

COM: “Ugh. We’ve tried that already. Look at kind of political and economic power large corporations have in the United States. Look at the bailouts; look at the subsidies. Haven’t we learned by now that capitalism, however appealing it might be on paper, inevitably degenerates into corporatism?”

LIB: “Oh, sure, corporations in America have too much power. But that’s because what we have in America isn’t real capitalism. Real capitalism is a much more subtle, sophisticated, and humane idea. We just haven’t tried it yet in the right way.

My guess is that most libertarians find the “we haven’t tried it” argument utterly unpersuasive in the first case, and spot-on in the second. But why? The structure of the arguments looks almost exactly identical. If it’s a good argument in the first case, why isn’t it just as good in the second? Or if it’s a bad argument in the second case, why isn’t just as bad in the first?

I have some thoughts of my own in answer to these questions, but for now I pose it simply as a question for discussion. Is there a difference between these two arguments? Or have libertarians been guilty of making the same kind of mistake we accuse advocates of communism of making?

(For related thoughts, see my earlier post on Communism, Anarchism, and Counter-examples)

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I posted some initial thoughts about lying to voters in a recent post. In my book The Ethics of Voting, I argue that most voting is wrongful. In the recent post, I said that voters are kind of like the murderer at the door, and the principles that explain when you can lie to the murderer at the door explain when you can lie to voters. Of course, just when you can lie to murderers at the door is a complicated question, and the same goes for bad voters. You don’t owe murderers at the door the truth, but for strategic reason, you have to be careful in what you say to them. Same goes with voters.

Many of the commenters said that my position can’t be right because people will misapply it in dangerous ways. They are right that politicians will misapply it in dangerous ways. In fact, I bet some politicians who wrongfully lie do so because they think that they mistakenly fall under a murderer at the door-type case. But that doesn’t mean that the principle is wrong. It just means that people tend to mess up the application.

So, I say, “In special circumstances, it’s permissible to lie, if doing so is an effective means to protect the innocent from wrongfully-imposed harms.” Now suppose someone objects:

We are poor judges of consequences. We are prone to thinking we are in exceptional circumstances when we are not. We are prone to misapply principles in self-serving ways. We look for excuses when there are not. If Brennan’s position on lying to voters were widely believed, politicians would probably misapply the principles in dangerous ways. In most real-life scenarios, if a politcians believes himself permitted to lie to voters, he should recognize he is prone to error, and should be extremely skeptical of his conclusion that lying is permitted in this instance.

This objection says that my argument is self-effacing. If people believed it, they would misapply it. While trying to conform to my position on lying to voters, they would act in ways not actually authorized by this position.

This objection fails for the same reason self-effacingness objections usually general. The fact that most people would botch applying a theory does not show that the theory is wrong. So, for instance, suppose—as is often argued—that most people would misapply utilitarian moral standards. Perhaps applying utilitarianism is too hard for the common person. Even if so, this does not invalidate utilitarianism. As David Brink notes, utilitarian moral theory means to provide a criterion of right, not a method for making decisions.[i] Utilitarianism is supposed to explain what makes actions right and wrong. Whether it is useful—given flawed human psychology—for determining on the ground what to do is a different matter. Even if everyone consistently misapplied utilitarianism, this would not show the theory is false.[ii] (As an analogy, consider that certain physics equations explain why the baseball lands where it lands. However, most expert outfielders would never catch a ball if they tried to do so by applying the equations. The equations explain the ball’s path and explain where the balls will land, but do not provide a “decision procedure” for catching balls.)


[i] David Brink, “Utilitarian Morality and the Personal Point of View,” Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986): 417-38.

[ii] For an extended argument that moral theory aims to explain rather than to provide a decision-procedure, see Jason Brennan, “Beyond the Bottom Line: The Theoretical Goals of Moral Theorizing,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 28 (2008): 277-296.

*As an example of this: Stakeholder theory is lousy as a criterion of right action. It’s not the correct theory of corporate social responsibility. Or, at least, there aren’t good arguments for it. However, because people suffer from moral blind spots, stakeholder theory is a pretty good decision procedure–thinking like a stakeholder theorists tends to reduce people’s blind spots, and makes it more likely they will avoid certain moral errors.

UPDATE: Since we’ve a slew of new Randian readers recently, I’ll use Rand’s theory as an example here. Rand says people should be independent thinkers, not conformists who just follow others slavishly. Suppose, for the sake of argument, Rand’s moral theory is true. However, it turns out, empirically, that many of the top Randians *were* slavish, non-independent, irrational thinkers, who followed Rand in a cult-like fashion. This doesn’t mean that Rand’s moral theory is wrong. Rather, it just meant that her inner circle of fawning disciples and she herself failed to live according to the precepts of her own moral theory. Her moral theory could be a valid criterion of right, but for Rand and her disciples, her moral theory was not a useful decision-procedure. A criterion of right is psychology independent and universal, but a useful decision-procedure is psychology-dependent and individualized, as it depends upon each individual person’s particular psychological flaws.

UPDATE 2: Another way to see the difference. Suppose, for the sake of argument, the correct moral theory is M. But now suppose an evil demon says, “A ha! I’m going to cast  a spell making it so that anyone who believes M will misapply M, thus causing all M-believers to act badly, in a way inconsistent with theory M.” In that world, M is still the correct moral theory–it still explains what makes actions right and wrong. However, you wouldn’t want to teach people M or ask them to use M on the ground. Instead, you’d want to use an independent decision-procedure, something that would tend to make them act in accordance with M, but without consciously thinking about or trying to apply M.

UPDATE 3: There’s a good quotation from Keynes I use in my PPE class about how we should preach free trade as an inflexible dogma to politicians. Keynes’s view was that there are some cases where free trade is not good, but we can’t trust politicians to distinguish the cases where free trade is bad from the cases where it’s good. Accordingly, since it’s rarely bad, and since politicians are dumb, economists should just tell politicians to do free trade no matter what, period. So, Keynes was in effect saying that “Free trade is always good” is strictly speaking false, according to the correct economic theory, but also saying that “Free trade is always good” is a good decision-procedure for politicians, given their lack of knowledge and their flawed psychology.

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I’m writing a paper for an edited anthology on political ethics. I haven’t started writing it yet; I’ve just written an abstract for their proposal. But the paper will defend the thesis that politicians may lie to stupid voters. Here’s some very first-pass thoughts about this.


Politicians routinely lie to voters. Some such politicians act badly and should be held accountable for their lies. But might lying be obligatory or praiseworthy in some circumstances?

The duty to tell the truth is not unconditional. Rather, it’s a presumptive duty, one that can be trumped or overridden in certain circumstances, or one that might not apply in special circumstances. Consider the following case:

Murderer at the Door: You are hiding some of your friends in your basement, who are fleeing an ax murderer. The ax murderer appears at your front door and asks, “Excuse me, but by any chance, might you be hiding your friends in your basement? I’d like to murder them, if you don’t mind.”

Clearly you may lie in the murderer at the door case. (Despite what you may have heard, even Kant might agree to that.) You don’t owe the murderer the truth, and you don’t owe it to him to assist him in his evil conduct. Etc.

Now consider some variations:

The Evil Wizard: An evil wizard has misplaced his magic wand. You happen to know where it is. He says, “Hey, do you happen to know where my wand is? I need it to cast a magic spell that will curse the land with famine and disease.”

The Evil Wizard, Part II: An evil wizard has misplaced his magic wand. You happen to know where it is. He says, “Hey, do you happen to know where my wand is? I need it to cast a magic spell that will cause the economy to collapse, causing widespread pain and suffering.”

The Slightly Less Evil Wizard: An evil wizard has misplaced his magic wand. You happen to know where it is. He says, “Hey, do you happen to know where my wand is? I need it to cast a magic spell that will cause a number of stupid economic and political policies to be implemented, causing harm of various sorts to a great number of people.”

Lie, lie, lie!

The Sightly Less Evil Wizard Consortium: A group of evil wizards have magic wands. They plan to cast the “Implement bad policies that harm people” spell. However, they can’t remember what the words are. You can either tells them the magic word are “Thrak  burzum, thrak mokum, thrak ufum!”–the correct words to the spell that causes suffering–0r you can lie and tell them the magic words are “Gellon ned i gelir i chent gin ned i lelig”–which will cause happiness and joy, and also dupe the wizards into thinking they cast the evil spell.

Again, lying seems admirable, or, in fact, obligatory.

Now, suppose we replace the evil wizards consortium with voters, and rather than having magic spells, they have votes. Does anything change?

You might say, well, sure, obviously. After all, it’s permissible for voters to do as they please. But that claim doesn’t stand up to scrunity. Most citizens of most democratic countries have a moral obligation not to vote. Not only that, but there’s a good case to be made in favor of legally forbidding them from voting. (It also turns out one of the strongest objections to that claim fails, as I argue in my chapter in this book.)

Of course there are lots of objections that I’ll consider in the actual paper, but this is enough for now. My point here is just to say that if there is a duty not to lie to voters, it must be because voters are in some way entitled to act like murderers at the door or evil wizards, when murderers at the door and evil wizards are not. (And, not only that, but you are forbidden from stopping them from acting badly.)

UPDATE: In fact, I’m making the case against lying to voters harder than it seems. The problem is that the above thought experiments present voters as intentionally malicious. But while some voters are intentionally malicious, most aren’t. Instead, consider a final case:

The Well-Meaning but Stupid Wizard Consortium: A group of stupid but nice wizards want to cast the “Implement good policies that help people” spell. To cast this spell, they write the words to the spell on a scroll, and then need to scroll to be placed in the fires of Mount Doom. Being nice but stupid, the mistakenly write down the words “Thrak  burzum, thrak mokum, thrak ufum!” But these are actually the words to a spell that causes suffering. You could try to explain to them that these are the wrong words, but you know they’re too stupid to ever realize their mistake. They ask you to deliver the spell to Mount Doom. However, your have the opportunity to promise to deliver their spell, but then lie, and in fact switch out the spell with the correct words, which are “Gellon ned i gelir i chent gin ned i lelig.”

Lie, lie, lie!

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