DeLong and Libertarianism

Brad DeLong has an interesting discussion of the differences between classical and modern liberalism. His nutshell conclusion:

It is, in short, that modern liberal economists are wanderers who have been expelled from the garden of classical liberalism by the angel of history and reality with his flaming sword...

It starts with an observation that we are all somewhat more interdependent than classical liberalism allows.

DeLong may well have a point here, though, of course it's a point that most people at DR will readily acknowledge. But I think that DeLong overstates his case:

It is not completely true that it is from the self-interest and not the benevolence of the butcher that we expect our meat. Self-interest, yes, but benevolence too: a truly self-interested butcher would not trade you his meat for your money but instead slaughter you and sell you as long pig. So this opens up a gap between the libertarian view and the world.

This isn't quite right. DeLong is mixing his philosophical metaphors, if you will. Or, to be more precise, DeLong's example requires positing a Hobbesian butcher living in a Lockean world.

Hobbes, of course, is most famous for concluding that life in the state of nature (i.e., sans government) is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Hobbes argues that the state of nature is effectively a prisoner's dilemma wherein cooperation is irrational. Basically the idea here is that, given that I don't know what you're likely to do, it's rational for me to kill you before you can get around to killing me. The same reasoning will lead you to try to kill me first. Neither of us need be evil: pure rationality will lead us to a really crappy world.

Locke, however, posits a slightly less grim world. According to Locke, while there will still be defection in the state of nature, there will also be a fair amount of cooperation. Locke's own arguments for the claim get into a bunch of weird theology, but we needn't go down that road. We can use Hobbes' own prisoner's dilemma to arrive at a Lockean position; all we need is the additional realization that, in the real world, we'll have to play the game over and over. But iterated prisoner's dilemmas have a subgame perfect Nash equilibrium, which is a fancy way of saying that it's rational to cooperate when we don't know how many times we'll end up having to play the game.

So how does this relate to DeLong? Basically, it's that DeLong's example posits a butcher. That is, someone who is already engaged in a particular trade. Which itself presupposes that, in at least some cases, people really do make trades. Which in turn is a way of saying that some people actually do cooperate in the butcher's world. But DeLong's butcher, on the other hand, behaves as a Hobbesian, who assumes that each particular instance of the prisoner's dilemma is a stand-alone event. But given that the butcher does in fact live in a Lockean world, she would have to expect that she might well be punished in a future version of the game.

All of this is really a long-winded way of saying that if DeLong's butcher really does slaughter his potential customers to sell as long pig, then she isn't behaving rationally. Indeed, one wonders to whom the butcher will be selling anything if, as DeLong suggests, it's always in her self-interest to slaughter her customers.

Again, this isn't to say that DeLong doesn't have a point. No one disputes that, in certain cases, a butcher might have an incentive to sell her clients. But it's not clear that there are any non-strawman libertarians who would seriously dispute the point. Which is why libertarians still favor legal and criminal justice systems. We're just divided as to whether those should be minarchist monopoly systems or some version of polycentric systems.

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An intelligent response

It's a more intelligent response than DeLong's argument deserves, going by the quotes. You should, by the way, link to DeLong's full argument somewhere. You don't seem to here.

I added the link <eom>

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I'd have thought Delong better than this obviously flawed...

...argument.

As you said, repeat bidness anyone?

Check his comments

I don't know if it's related, but there is enough ass-kissing and me-tooing in his comments to make anyone get sloppy. Plus, as Patri pointed out, DeLong has been deleting critical comments. That was in 2005 - I don't know what's happened since.

Brad Delong Does Not Follow The Rules of Honest Debate

Brad Delong still has the habit of, to quote him, "pruning" his comment sections down to what he finds "useful". So do not expect to be able to have an honest debate over at his site. Not only was he doing it back in 2005 but he still follows the practice now. This is well documented in the comments section to an article titled "Delong Pounds Mises" over at mises.org. As far as I can tell he starts deleting comments as soon as he is losing an argument and doesn't have a good answer. He may do it for other reasons also.

I conclude from Delongs behavior that he does not value intellectual honesty since he violates well established rules that help us prevent personal intellectual error. Given that he uses inferior intellectual processes I hold his opinions in low regard as they are very likely to contain massive amounts of error.

He is likely not to hold intellectual positions but instead personal preferences. He is also likely to mistake such preference for actual well thought out, consistent, and well tested intellectual position.
He prefers some of the methods of the witch hunt to those of science when forming his opinions.

I found him doing this in his area of expertise, economic theory.

"Useful" :-)

Brad Delong still has the habit of, to quote him, "pruning" his comment sections down to what he finds "useful".

Here are some examples, then, of what he finds "useful":

Very good.

Good post. I hope your decision to stop where you did is temporary.

great exposition.

Excellent post, Brad.

Extremely wise. And artful. I'm impressed. Sigh....

Very nicely done. Thanks.

I'm going to have to make a hardcopy of this one.

I found this exposition incerdibly enlightening, and delightful in the reading.

If this discredited

If this discredited caricature is all that this popular and respected economist of the Left chooses to use against libertarianism...well then I think we're in pretty good shape.
"A truly self-interested butcher would ...instead slaughter you and sell you as long pig." So pathetic and laughable.

Does "DeLong" live in MN

Does "DeLong" live in MN (negative twenty degrees)? If he does, he'd have major shrinkage right now. Seriously. I'd be inclined to call him "Brad."

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I don't understand how

I don't understand how DeLong thinks his statement about the butcher even clashes with libertaianism; indeed, it actually fits it quite well. The libertarian/classical liberal view is that people create good results for society by selfishly pursuing their own interests while respecting the persons and property of others. DeLong said,

"It is not completely true that it is from the self-interest and not the benevolence of the butcher that we expect our meat. Self-interest, yes, but benevolence too: a truly self-interested butcher would not trade you his meat for your money but instead slaughter you and sell you as long pig. So this opens up a gap between the libertarian view and the world."

In other words, the market economy doesn't work if everyone operating in it is a bloodthirsty psychopath. To which the libertarian replies, "No shit."

depends upon local social contract

Some local contracts permit the butcher to sell long pig from another tribe. Libertarianism at its best. Local social contract rules. Pun intended.