For the prevention of vice, and promotion of virtue

Will Wilkinson weighs in:

It is, however, 1/2 the commentators fault for not directly conceding that the libertarian vice is indeed a widespread libertarian vice. Alex and Glen: You protest too much! It is exceedingly similar to, if not the same thing as, what I call the “fallacy of asymmetric idealization.” Libertarians are in fact very often guilty of assuming counterfactually ideal markets and counterfactually non-ideal governments. And faith-in-government liberals commit the opposite vice. To argue, correctly I think, that empirical comparative analysis shows us that actually existing market institutions tend to perform better than actually existing government institutions in achieving liberal aims does nothing to establish that libertarians aren’t often guilty of Tyler’s vice, or my fallacy. Indeed, as long as you don’t read Tyler uncharitably as making a silly definitional claim about libertarianism, I don’t see how what he is saying is even contrarian, as opposed to a perfectly good observation.

After deftly encapsulating and summarizing the playing field and relative weaknesses (in his one paragraph vs. my entire post; its why they pay him the big bucks), the problem is clarified:

Of course, each policy decision alters what is politically possible in the future, which can present very complex choices. Suppose policies A and B are politically feasible. Policy C is not. A is “better government” and is best in the short run. But C is “legalizing a market in whatever it is A produces” which is best in the long run. A severely reduces the probability of getting to C. B significantly increases the probability of getting to C, but by no means guarantees it, and at the cost of short-term consequences worse than A. So, should we choose A or B? It depends on what you think the expected value of A and C conditional on B are.


If you think the value of C relative to A is huge, you’ll endorse B, even if it increases the probability of C only by a very small amount. I think the debate between statist liberals and market liberals is often a debate over the relative benefits of A and C. If you’re the sort of libertarian who endorses B no matter how big the gains from A, and no matter how small the probability of C, then you’re guilty of the vice. I’ve met more than a few libertarians who will not only endorse B for the purpose of very slightly increasing the the low probablity of C, but on the basis of a truly fantastic conception of a possible path from B all the way through the alphabet to N, libertarian nirvana. But by the time you get only a few steps into the future, the probability is basically zero, in which case supporting B on the prospect of its leading to N is surely a form of addlepated utopianism. If you deny that this happens, then we have been going to different libertarian conferences.

The difference between welfare/statist liberal analysis and market liberal analysis in a nutshell! Of course, that is also a very large metaphysical nutshell as Will points out in the paragraph after; the devil's in the details. But it suggests that it would be wise for folk arguing for C to find a B that competes well with a given A in the short term, as well as arguing over relative probabilities.

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