Book/Article Reviews

Kosmos Online Interview on Libertarianism

Bill Glod interviews me here:

My favorite question that he asks (around 11:35) is what should libertarian academics work on right now. I say my overall advice is to work on whatever they find interesting. Don’t feel that your job is to be a spokesperson for an ideology, because doing so would be corrupting.

On that point, I was talking with a colleague yesterday who once had an opportunity to work at a think tank. Personally, I wouldn’t want to work at a think tank. I want to be free to become convinced of, say, Marxism, without having to quit my job.

The last question, around 15:30, is about whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic about liberty in the short-term and long-term. My take: For the world, things look good. For the US, things look bad.

  • Sean II

    I always thought the lure of Marxism for non-science academics was that it provided an endlessly useful, evidence-proof framework for giving them something to write about, and making themselves seem at once clever and deep.

    No theory has survived more falsified predictions than Marxism. Every time the idea loses a clash with reality, the ideology grows. Capitalism didn’t collapse? Oh, that’s because of imperialism. Workers didn’t revolt? False consciousness. People don’t identify with their class? Did we say class? We meant race, and if that doesn’t explain everything, sometimes we also meant gender. The whole thing is like a coral reef: the dead parts don’t decay, they stick around to make a foundation for the living.

    It’s true of course that other theories like Freudianism could have done the same service, but given the derivative way academic work is produced (i.e, “now let’s hear Brennan’s thoughts on Cohen’s remarks about Nozick’s response to Rawls) I guess it just made sense for a large portion of the academic community to pick a framework and come to a consensus around it. And hey, there’s a competition Marxism could win!

    The other advantage – the one about seeming clever and deep – is also important. No seventeen year old kid walks out of Die Hard thinking “What a fascinating expression of the super-structure of late patriarchal capitalism!” So when that kid goes to college a year later, he cannot help but have his mind blown by such analyses.

    Leaning Marxist in America helps professors cultivate something that is an expected part of their “look” at least since the 1960s. It helps them strike the pose of being slightly dangerous rebels, who can let their students in on a couple of big secrets about everything they ever thought they knew.

    • Thanks for sharing. The second paragraph in particular was awesome.

      • Sean II

        Hey, thanks for saying so.

        I’m afraid you’re probably right about the diverging trends between the liberty-fleeing United States and the cautiously-liberalizing world. We’ll keep talking one game and playing another, until conflationism becomes our chief cultural export (at the moment it’s still only in third place, behind hip-hop and first person shooter games).

        We’re both reasonably young, so maybe we’ll live to see a day when the Green Democrat party accuses the Libertarian-Republic party of “trying to drag America toward the Scandinavian model” – except by that time, the Scandinavian model will have come to mean unregulated labor markets, government spending held below 20% of GDP, no subsidies to favored industries, strong legal protection for contracts and property, etc.

        We can tell our thoroughly bored grandchildren how interesting it is, that things used to be the other way around.

    • martinbrock

      I think the third paragraph is awesome, but I’m outside of the academic community.

  • The interview was good! I was, however, left curious about the where the “common sense moral intuitions” meet the “concern with consequences for the poor”. It seems that early on, Mr. Brennan was arguing for more consequentialism and less concern about rights, but later on seemed to lay the foundation on the whole libertarian project at the feet of a concern for rights. Then again, perhaps I just wasn’t listening closely enough..

  • I am not optimistic about either the USA or the rest of the world. True, there is much greater economic freedom (and a small amount of personal freedom) In places like China, Russia, and other former communist nations. But these places still have big, powerful, centralized governments. The experience of the USA and Europe shows that as Democracy becomes more democratic, or populous, it enacts ever more tyrannical forms of centralization.

    I fear that the early critics of democracy were correct. As time goes by the urge of the population is to greater conformity, and more sanctions against those who do not conform. And the Mob is easily manipulated and quite open to the most vulgar race and class baiting. Modern methods of instant personal communication actually aggravate this tendency. We are not headed to Orwell’s 1984, but we may be headed to Huxley’s Brave New World.