Having well-informed, sophisticated views about complex issues is an achievement of a sort, and can be admirable. Managing to be rationally agnostic about complex issues is also an achievement, and is admirable. Forming cartoony opinions on complex matters is not admirable. As Edith Watson Schipper says, Reasons are the coin by which we pay for the beliefs we hold. People who strongly hold strong beliefs on bad reasons haven’t paid the bill.
In a previous post, I made the following remarks:
The most cartoony version of NAP implies that any risk I impose upon you without your consent is wrong and violates your rights…
…Rawls advocates the difference principle, which might in principle require redistribution. Many cartoon libertarians respond that this involves unjust aggression against innocent people and their property.
Why talk about cartoon libertarianism? As I see it, Matt’s posts about non-aggression and his posts in general at Libertarianism.org are a critique of cartoon libertarianism. Cartoon libertarianism is an unsophisticated, poorly thought out version of libertarianism. Cartoon libertarians have fallacious arguments, accept facile theories, and make question-begging or poor objections to others’ views, but they just don’t realize it. Matt wants to help cartoon libertarians grow up a bit.
Given what we know about political psychology, we should expect that most libertarians are cartoon libertarians. It would be surprising if that were not the case. Most people of most ideologies hold cartoony versions of that ideology. Maybe libertarians are a little better or worse than average, but it would be surprising if the majority of them were sophisticated. (I’d guess they’re a little bit more sophisticated than average Democrats or Republicans, but not more sophisticated on average than others who hold heterodox positions.)
By comparison, in a recent post, Bryan Caplan talks about there being a pyramid of sophistication when it comes to beliefs about macroeconomics.
Tier 1, the Base of the Pyramid (50%): Partisans who loudly support Status Quo Macro Policy (SQMP) as long as “their side” is in power, and angrily oppose SQMP when “their side” isn’t in power. See all the Democrats who supported Clinton’s austerity, and all the Republicans who supported Bush II’s profligacy.
Tier 2 (30%): Ideologues who are sure that “active government policy” will work well/poorly, even though they can’t even explain “their side’s” arguments, much less the “other side’s” arguments. [How many libertarians are in this group?]
Tier 3 (10%): People who can parrot some basic textbook macroeconomics to support “their side,” but who can’t answer basic objections – or even accurately parrot the parts of the textbook that conflict with their views. [How may libertarians are here?]
Tier 4 (7%): People who understand a few Undeniable Macroeconomic Truths. For Keynesians, these include: “Nominal wages are sticky,” “A lot of unemployment is involuntary,” and “Aggregate Demand matters.” For anti-Keynesians, these include: “The safety net discourages job search and sustains unrealistic worker expectations,” “99 weeks of unemployment insurance makes nominal wages stickier,” and “Regular government spending is wasteful, and stimulus spending is worse.” [How many libertarians here?] […]
Tier 5, the Apex of the Pyramid (3%): People who freely acknowledge the whole list of Undeniable Macroeconomic Truths, while taking all Questionable Macroeconomic Exotica with a grain of salt.
My educated guess is that a roughly similar pyramid exists for sophistication about politics in general. Now, as I have argued at great length in the past, I don’t think there is anything particularly admirable or special about having political sophistication. Being sophisticated at politics is no more inherently admirable than being sophisticated at plumbing. I think it’s fine to be disengaged and unaware of politics.
You might be a cartoon libertarian if:
1. You think the term “social justice” has no definite meaning in philosophy today. Perhaps the term was too loosely used in Hayek’s time. I’m not criticizing him. But the term has a real meaning now. The question is no longer whether the idea of social justice is coherent, but whether any such principles of social justice are true.
2. You think Ayn Rand’s critiques of Kant or Plato (or any philosopher, for that matter) are insightful. Rand attacks straw men.
3. You think “All taxation is theft” is a good premise to use in an argument with anyone from the Left. It isn’t. “All taxation is theft” is a conclusion, not a premise. It presupposes a theory of the legitimacy of property that the Left disputes. You need to debate them on this theory.
4. You think it would be wrong to trespass on someone else’s property to stop him from letting a baby starve in a picture window. If you’re drawn to this conclusion, you’ve been blinded by a theory of property rights.
5. You believe that Keynes was a hardcore leftist jerk, but you A) haven’t read any actual Keynes (who wasn’t actually a hardcore leftist at all), and B) you can’t explain the Keynesian rationale for fiscal policy. I’ve met a large number of libertarians who think Keynes was Satan. Only a few of them, in conversation, have been able to give me a good account of why anyone would believe the other side.
6. You think “The Seen and Unseen” or Economics in One Lesson present decisive objections to all government intervention. These are good arguments, but they are not decisive. Again, you need to understand the other side. The smart people on the other side understand the “seen and unseen” argument and think they have identified real grounds for intervention.
7. You have spent the last 30 years saying rampant inflation is just around the corner and the time to buy gold is now.
8. Reading this makes you angry.
9. Reading this makes you angry.
10. You dogmatically assert self-ownership and then dogmatically use this to refute arguments for the welfare state.
11. You believe there are no involuntary positive duties to others.
12. If you think you can describe how actual economies work just by manipulating definitions. You think you can refute behavioral economists by saying, “Oh, that’s behavior, not human action.”
13. You think it is conceptually impossible for most left-wing economic ideas to be true, so no empirical work is needed to evaluate them.
14. Reading this post made you angry.
15. You can’t pass an ideological turing test.
16. You think you can prove people are self-owners by the fact that we take others to have the right to agree or disagree with us in argument.
17. You have spent the last 30 years predicting a massive economic collapse, bigger than the Great Depression, is just around the corner.
And so on.
UPDATE: Here’s a response from the Stationary Waves blog about my motives and character.
Here’s a video from Cato where I discuss cartoon vs. non-cartoon libertarianism: http://www.cato.org/events/libertarianism-what-everyone-needs-know.
An important question in response to my original piece: Why pick on people with an ideology similar to mine? Why not attack conservatives or the Left instead?
1. For the most part, only libertarians and classical liberals read this blog. Criticizing the left won’t do any good here–they won’t read it. When I want to talk to the Left, I write academic pieces.
2. If the Left does read this, it should surprise some of them to learn that people on the other side agree with them that many libertarians are cartoonish. They might say to themselves, “Hey, maybe libertarianism isn’t all silly. Maybe it deserves a second look.”
UPDATE 3: Notice how many commentators say things like, “So, if you’re a libertarian but don’t agree with Jason Brennan, you’re a cartoon libertarian?” Isn’t that kind of a cartoonish response? I certainly didn’t write anything that implies that. Notice also that despite my frequent caveats that I don’t think having political sophistication is especially virtuous (I just think that having strongly held political beliefs without good reasons is epistemically vicious), people are still treating this as if I’m just trying to say how much more awesome I am than everyone else. Ugh.