Book/Article Reviews

Smith on my most recent book

UPDATE (2:18 pm): A couple more points:

  1. In the What Everyone Needs to Know series, we’re not supposed to take a hard stand. I’m not trying to convert anyone. I’m just trying to get them to understand what libertarians think and why, and in particular, to see that not all libertarians are a bunch of cranks and crackpots, though some are.
  2. Also, whether an argument successfully changes minds isn’t exactly a good test of an argument anyways. Most people–including most people who agree with me–are close-minded, biased crackpots when it comes to political thinking. A good argument makes it so people should change their minds, but few good arguments will actually succeed in changing minds.

George H. Smith continues his commentary on Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. In part 2, he takes issue with my non-treatment of Rothbard and my treatment of Rand.  In part 3, he criticizes me for my discussion of positive liberty.

What to say? One of my goals in the book was to make libertarianism seem reasonable to people who don’t already agree. Focusing on Rothbard and Rand seemed like a bad idea. If I wanted to convince someone to be a libertarian anarchist, I’d recommend he read Michael Huemer’s new book, not Rothbard. My blurb for Huemer’s book:

Huemer has produced not just a brilliant work of political philosophy, but a gripping page-turner. With an engaging style and sharp wit, Huemer demolishes two entrenched dogmas: that we have a duty to obey the law, and the state has the right to force us to obey. Huemer’s conclusions may be controversial, but he makes them seem like commonsense.

Huemer starts with commonsense moral thinking and gets us to controversial conclusions. Rothbard starts with bad, dogmatic arguments for controversial ideas and then tries to generate even more controversial conclusions. Huemer is a model of good philosophy. Rothbard is a model of bad philosophy.

As for positive liberty, here’s my quick take:

  1. People have been using the words “liberty” and “freedom” to mean lots of different but related things for a very long time. (Check if you’d like.) Positive conceptions of liberty were not artificial constructions produced by Marxists to confuse people. Rather, the words have for a long time had both positive and negative meanings. (Again, check Many libertarians believe that once upon a time, “liberty” just meant a certain conception of negative liberty, but then a bunch of nasty leftists destroyed the concept by introducing new definitions. That’s a-historical. When libertarians insist on reserving “liberty” only for negative liberty, they are revising the English language.
  2. We don’t settle anything about politics by settling on definitions for these words. Literally nothing normative is at stake for how we define “liberty”.
  3. Instead, once we pick a definition–or once we decide just to accept commonsense definitions–these leaves open the following questions: 1) Is liberty, so described, valuable? In what way? What obligations do we have with respect to liberty so described? 2) What, if anything, should government do about that kind of liberty?
  4. Answering this last question requires us to look at empirical evidence about what happens when government is given the task of promoting or protecting that kind if liberty. Government gets the job of protecting or promoting liberty only if it’s comparatively good at it. (Notice this is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition.)
  5. As a matter of fact, protecting negative liberty has been the most important and successful method of expanding people’s positive liberty.
  6. Some people think that if positive liberty really were a form of liberty, this would license socialism, because we would need to guarantee that people enjoy positive liberty. But there’s a difference between guaranteeing in the sense of rendering inevitable (as when an economist says that raising the minimum wage to $100/hr would guarantee rising unemployment) vs. guaranteeing as expressing a firm commitment to achieve an end through law (as when Bush guaranteed no child would be left behind). Legal guarantees are often no guarantee at all. Often they get in the way of the thing they’re supposed to guarantee. Again, see points 4 and 5.
  7. Even if Marxists caused disasters by talking about “positive liberty”, that doesn’t challenge 1-6 above. All it shows is that the Marxist strategy for delivering positive liberty failed. See, once again, points 4 and 5.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what we call positive liberty. If, for ideological reasons, Smith and other libertarians insist on revising the English language so that only negative liberty counts as as liberty, fine. Instead of positive liberty, call it “zlarp”. My point is that a commitment to the value of zlarp isn’t an argument for Marxism, but an argument against it.
Smith continually talks about the “small band of neoclassical liberals”, as if I’m making a big deal out of a bunch of nobodies. Admittedly, “neoclassical liberal” is my term for what’s been going on in classical liberal thinking over the past 30 years. However, frankly, when I read Smith’s complaints, he reminds me of the North-Going and South-Going Zax.
Smith seems like he’s stuck in the old intellectual battles and hasn’t noticed how things have changed around him. Is he aware that the #1 ranked program in political philosophy is the University of Arizona, and that “neoclassical liberalism” is the umbrella term for the kind of classical liberal thinking that it has been producing? Has he talked to young people? Has he been reading new works by new people? Smith’s brand of (what I call) “hard libertarianism” really does appear from my perspective like an aberration in the mainline of classical liberal thought, a brief blip from the 1970s that has since faded away.



  • I’m also surprised that Smith hasn’t been aware of neoclassical liberalism. There’s even an entry on neoclassical liberals and neoclassical economics on wikipedia! (granted, wikipedia is no authoritative source on current trends in philosophical thought) In any event, neoclassical economics, a school of economic thought that is largely connected with neoclassical liberalism, is an acknowledged, studied, prevalent, and very well known economic theory! In fact, many academics would consider popular libertarian thinkers such as Hayek and Milton Friedman as neoclassical liberals/economists!! So for Smith to brush off neoclassical liberalism as a small group of philosophers relegated to few academic circles and philosophy departments is rather strange.

    • No, it’s not that strange. Smith is conversant with many streams of libertarianism, both modern and historical. The unkind comment by Brennan alleging that Smith is out of touch with young people is a old and time-dishonored way of attacking someone who happens to be older (and IMO wiser, in this case) than one is. It’s a petty way of arguing. I am sure that Brennan was disappointed in Smith’s less than enthusiastic review of his book. But I suggest that rather than using that old chestnut as a way to dismiss Smith because one’s feelings are hurt that he actually consider what Smith has to say. The two of you may imagine that your point of view is widespread because after all *you* know all about it. Perhaps that is a somewhat egocentric view. I have been reading libertarian discussions on Facebook for a few years now and frankly, it doesn’t exactly seem to be all the rage there. While I can’t speak for other forums, FB is certainly a litmus test of a kind. If it were as well-known as you claim, I would think there would be more of it on FB than what I have seen so far. I would therefore suggest that it is not quite as well-known as you imagine it to be.

      Criticism from a historian like Smith is hard to swallow; I understand that. But it comes with the territory. If you are unable to take criticism, then you are going to have a painful career. Rather than pouting, why not try to learn from it and be more cautious in your future comments. And P.S. an entry on Wiki pretty much means nothing. Honestly I think you should be a bit embarrassed to use that as a point. I would like to think that you could do better than that.

      • Sean II

        So, to sum up Sharon:

        1) It’s perfectly okay for Smith to accuse Brennan of getting mixed up with a small, uncool crowd of neo-classical nobodies, but it’s definitely not nice for Brennan to defend himself by saying that Smith is stuck in an old incarnation of libertarian thought, which hasn’t kept pace with its leading edge.

        2) Facebook is an important and valuable proving ground, where ideas go to have their purchase and legitimacy tested, wile Wiki is an embarrassing non-source which one should be ashamed to mention in polite conversation.

        Well, nothing inconsistent or confusing about that!

        • There are many intellectual discussions on Facebook if you have the right friends (see below) whereas anyone can put an entry on Wiki for just about anything. Where is the similiarity?

          • j r

            Actually the back and forth that decides what the final Wikipedia entry looks like is very much like a Facebook conversation. You can see it by clicking on the “Talk” tab. I suppose the one difference is that you may not consider Wikipedia editors as the “right” people. You can, however, see what they right and judge them as such.

          • Sean II

            J.R. already made the most important and best point below, so I’ll gladly defer to him on that.

            On a slightly more emotional note, let me add: I can’t but recoil from your comment about the value of having the “right friends”, and the importance not letting just “anyone” into a conversation.

            The right people have been in control of information for a very long time. Forums like Wiki and Facebook and BHL have finally changed that. For centuries the rabble had only two choices: stand in awe of the temple, or burn it to the ground. Now they have another option: enter, speak, be heard, make the high priests look ridiculous, etc.

            This experience has taught, or should have taught us, two things. The first is that many of the right people turn out to be privileged, pampered buffoons with more social status than sense, and more credentials than credibility.

            The second is that many of the rabble are fascinatingly creative people who, through no fault of their own (and sometimes through great credit and personal integrity), chose not to spend their lives becoming the “right people”. One of them could produce an entire system of thought – beautiful, elegant and wise – but the Oxford University Press wouldn’t even bother to send him a rejection letter.

            That used to matter. That used to mean everything. It used to mean that guys like Brian Leiter would run unopposed in the eternal battle of ideas. Now, that old hoary power is worth less every year.

            This thread started as a discussion of different types of libertarians. I’m really curious to know which type of libertarian looks at Wikipedia and thinks: “Tsk, tsk…this is a case of too much spontaneous and not enough authority and order.”

      • I’m arguing it is strange precisely because of the fact that Smith is an historian who is familiar with various streams of libertarian thought. Neo-classical liberalism has been around since at least the 1930’s, and some well known (in libertarian circles) thinkers associated with libertarianism, hayek and friedman, have been regarded as falling under neoclassical liberalism. My point is, im surprised that Smith, who is an academic and historian, would not be aware of this strain of libertarianism when it is a well established, prevalent school of thought and especially an economic theory in academic circles. If he had read any history on economic thought (not saying he hasn’t), then neoclassical liberalism would have been mentioned.

        Also, i’m not sure how much Facebook would be any better at gauging popularity for a movement, especially for something as specific, particular, and non mainstream as libertarianism, or any schools of thought that fall under the libertarian umbrella. Facebook is a litmus test for things that are popular in pop culture, but not necessarily great at determining whether a sub genre of a non mainstream thought has any traction. Moreover, the comments you see on facebook are from those with whom you have some level of acquaintance, and im assuming not everyone you know is a libertarian, so I feel like fb for that reason as well would be difficult to use as a litmus test for the popularity of or knowledge of neoclassical liberalism. For me at least, most of my friends are democrat, so I would hardly say that in my situation fb would suited for gauging whether or not a particular strain of libertarianism has any traction in philosophical circles.

        The fact that i think its strange is not a knock on Smith’s credibility as an academic, scholar, historian, or libertarian. Perhaps its more surprise because i assumed that him being a historian he would have come across the idea since it is pretty widespread in academic circles. Thats all.

        • Just for the record, most of my Facebook friends are libertarians, including Steve Horwitz, Gary Chartier, Byron Caplan, David Boaz, Tom Palmer, David Beito, David Gordon, and Matt Zwolinkski, as well as other well-known libertarian scholars. If they’re not talking about it, who is? Perhaps I have missed some discussions but over the last four years or so that I’ve been on FB, it seems I would have encountered many more if it were as popular as you claim.

          “If he had read any history on economic thought (not saying he hasn’t), then neoclassical liberalism would have been mentioned.” First of all this is a back-hand way of attacking Smith that I find less than charitable. Second of all, he never said it didn’t exist, he merely said it was not a major strain currently. That is arguably true. You would have a stronger argument if you would refrain from using strawmen and innuendos.

          • I feel like you are taking this way more personally than I am actually intending it to be. Moreover, it seems as though you are taking what I’m saying as a personal attack on Smith’s integrity as a historian and scholar. However, this could not be further from the truth. I’m not trying to imply that Smith is unknowledgeable, ignorant, or oblivious to discourses and trends within the world of libertarian thought. Perhaps this is my fault for phrasing my thoughts incorrectly. All I am saying is that I am surprised at his relative unfamiliarity with neoclassical liberalism and his comment that it is “confined to a handful of academic philosophers” (which is arguable, but I do not care to go into that here).

            In any event, I am not trying to make “back-hand[ed]” comments attacking Smith. My comment that you say attacked smith was not meant to do that at all. You are completely misinterpreting what I was trying to say. You seem to have glossed over my comment where i say “The fact that i think its strange is not a knock on Smith’s credibility as an academic, scholar, historian, or libertarian.” I have much respect for Smith.

      • @Sharon: I’m not upset or bothered, and Smith did say in his initial review that he liked the book. I really like Smith’s work on Atheism and think he’s a sharp thinker. If anything, I’m just expressing surprise at how different the world looks to the two of us. I hardly ever encounter strictly natural rights, deontological libertarians, or Randian libertarians. Most libertarians I’ve met have had a larger role for consequentialist thinking in their justifications for libertarianism.

    • Well Cristian, in the “hispanic world” some intellectuals consider Hayek and M. Friedman “neoliberalist” but it’s not good… “Neoliberalism” it’s pejorative. It’s similar to say “you are not really liberals, your thinking is an aberration of classical liberalism”.
      Pd: Neoclassical economics is not the same as libertarism or neoclassical liberalsm (e.g. A. Marshall)

      • I say that because i haven’t found in wikipedia the page “neoclassical liberalism” just only “neoliberalism”. I believe that you confuse the terms. In “the hispanic world” very very few people know about the Brennan’s position (Less than you can imagine).

  • I wonder whether Smith has read G.A.Cohen’s paper Freedom and Money ?

    • I have a class here that starts with some of Cohen’s writings. The Marxist critique of market society is very powerful, and everyone, whether left-liberal, classical liberal, or hard libertarian, needs to come to grips with it. Unfortunately, in my experience, most of the latter tend to just dismiss it. I don’t know what Smith would say.

      • Well of course I agree with that. But my point here is just that Cohen explicitly relies on a negative conception of liberty to make the left-wing case, which rather bolsters your point that the negative-positive divide doesn’t map onto to the libertarian-leftist one (as Smith seems to think it does).

      •, the site on which Smith published, contains a section with reading lists. One of the lists is Critics of Liberty, and in it is Cohen’s Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality.

  • Fallon

    This “neoclassical liberalism” may be the future– but it is definitely not synonymous with libertarianism or classic liberalism unless the latter taxonomic category is given wide lens; but then it would have to include the “hard” libertarians too.

    Nor is neoclassical liberalism even remotely the most popular variant of libertarianism among young people currently. The Ron Paul category trumps any university center and/or Koch funded fusionist political agenda. Tyler Cowen, Dick Armey, Charles Murray…? These guys are not libertarians but admixes, e.g. So whatever limited appeal they actually have means what exactly?

    Even if the logical solidity of the NAP has been destroyed by the bleeding heart “neo-” philosophers here, the great unwashed have certainly grabbed on to it.

    Should someone text Jacob Huebert to referee these points? Any wagers?

    I am still waiting for Prof. Brennan to take down Rothbard’s economics– which he disparaged without backup recently, even after a request that he defend his remarks. Notice here in this post he attacks Rothbard on natural rights etc but refrains from any direct substantive attack on his economics. (Not even one Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan or Gary Becker quotation) Yet, neoclassical liberalism has its economic theories informing (or being informed by) its politics and ethics too. Just like the “hards”. Maybe Rothbard and the Misesians undermine Friedman and company so much and so thoroughly that the neoclassical liberal project is rendered suspect entirely.

    One illustration of a flaw in Brennan’s reasoning, indicative of politics informed by positivistic econ, is #4:

    “Answering this last question requires us to look at empirical
    evidence about what happens when government is given the task of
    promoting or protecting that kind if liberty. Government gets the job of
    protecting or promoting liberty only if it’s comparatively good at it. (Notice this is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition.)”

    Brennan tacks on a disclaimer about his comparative empirical analysis. Yet one steeped in Bastiat, Mises and Rothbard sees that government action requires non-empiricist approaches in analysis. e.g. Surely the neos don’t reject the Broken Window Fallacy? Indeed, even Hayek, neoclassical icon, granted the necessity of apriorism in a limited sense….

    • j r

      It depends what you mean by apriorism and by necessity.

      The broken window fallacy is a great example. It’s a very good parable to use to inoculate people against a common economic sophism. Good economics is often counter-intuitive and Bastiat and Mises and Rothbard are quite good helping folks understand. However, when contemporary macroeconomists start talking about fiscal stimulus in response to liquidity traps and zero rate policy environments, trotting out the broken window fallacy is a woefully inaccurate response.

      I don’t mean to imply that the Keynesians are right, but only to point out that to effectively counter them takes a much deeper level of economic understanding. The main problem with this sort of apriorism is that it confuses maxim for axiom.

      • Fallon

        Thanks jr.

        One of Mises’s great achievements was to notice a common aprioristic theme in classic liberal economics and give it formal structure. The Broken Window Fallacy, a strong parable indeed, fits quite nicely into the Austrian deductive matrix actually. The BWF is a darn good wrecking ball against those macroeconomic stimulus models, even if it does not quite stand alone.

        Austrian economist Joe Salerno wrote this recently concerning government stimulus via highway construction:

        “The question then becomes whether “public capital” constructed
        willy-nilly by government officials for political purposes and without
        recourse to economic calculation is more productive than the private
        capital investment it crowded out and that would have been undertaken by
        entrepreneurs risking their own wealth and guided by profits and
        losses. I do not believe the answer to this question is in doubt.”

        What is seen and not seen.

        • j r

          “… I do not believe the answer to this question is in doubt.”

          The question of whether there is a fiscal multiplier of greater than 1 is an empirical one, so of course it is in doubt. And this is precisely my point. Moreover, the liquidity trap argument assumes a special case in which private capital will not be deployed. When faced with that argument, you can attempt to deal with it (as many classical and Austrian economists have) or you can default to something that Bastiat wrote 150 years ago. When you do the latter, however, you are pretty much resigning yourself to being excluded from the mainstream conversation.

          Saying that the broken window fallacy is a darn good wrecking ball against modern macro is like saying that Newtonian mechanics is a darn good wrecking ball against string theory. The more I think about it, the physics analogy works quite well. Understanding classical physics will get you well on your way to understanding how the universe works. As a high school science teacher used to say, “Newtonian Mechanics put a man on the moon.” There comes a point, however, at which classical mechanics is no longer enough to explain what is actually happening out there in the world.

          • Fallon

            Sorry, but all knowledge, especially econ, is not a (sub )branch of physics. Though certainly, aprioristic reasoning as it stands should not be held as the final unquestioned word for all time dictated by God. Part of what is wrong with Keynesian math models and other positivist variants is exactly their attempt to import the approach of physics and the natural sciences. In the process of model creation they empty humans of their subjective and critical capacities. In other words, stimulus modeling without an Austrian grounding is merely lots of complexity based on a flaw amounting to a sophistry like that analogized by the Wizard of Oz’s smoke and mirror show.

            The equations imply a kind of predictability that cannot exist in human action. The numbers themselves, in addition, do not correspond to actual market price phenomena. Real factor prices are rendered non-existent, impossible and distorted. So how on earth can opportunity costs (a little BWF action here), via realistic cardinal data forms be estimated at all? The money and resources used for stimulus come by force– like human made hurricanes (see Broken Window Fallacy., Bastiat).

            You could say that for all the whiteboard space taken up by the equations– that these stimulus conjurers are utterly ill equipped to deal with the true complexity of social reality due to their simplistic physics imperialism.

          • j r

            Sorry if I was unclear. The point of the physics analogy is not to claim economics as a branch of the hard sciences. It is to draw a parallel between the limits of classical economics and of classical physics.

            You are right that economics will never have the empirical certainty of the hard sciences. Nonetheless, I stand behind the appropriateness and the superiority of the steps of the scientific method (propose a hypothesis, make observations, draw conclusion based on the observations, amend hypothesis), especially when compared to the sort of deductive reasoning that can afflict many hard libertarians.

            And perhaps this is just an area of disagreement between us.

  • Disagreeing with Rothbard is not a good excuse to leave him out of an intro to libertarianism book, in fact, I think it is intellectually dishonest. Yes, others have taken his ideas on libertarian anarchy and much improved the logic and philosophy behind it, but trying to pretend he didn’t have a major role in modern libertarianism is preposterous.

    It is understandable that Brennan wants to paint libertarianism through the lens of his philosophy, but pretending that the Rothbardian/Austrian libertarians are a minority and neoclassical liberals are the majority is laughable. If Brennan were honest, he would have titled his book Neoclassical Liberalism: What Everyone… instead of Libertarianism. It is fine to make an argument for your own brand of the philosophy, but it is not fine to deny (Rothbard) or attack (Rand) major, major influences on a movement when you’re writing an intro/overview.

    I don’t wish to attack Brennan’s ideas, I just think he should have titled the book differently, or not pretended to be giving an introduction when he was making an argument for his own brand.

    • I wasn’t making an argument for my own brand. For most of the sections of the book, the differences in how the question might be answered by any of the three different strands of libertarianism I identify make little difference. The book doesn’t pretend that Rothbard doesn’t matter historically, either. There just wasn’t any spot where talking about him would have helped much, given the way the book is structured. The book answers 105 questions about libertarianism, and Rothbard appears when there’s a good case to include him in the answers.

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