If You're a Libertarian, How Come Everyone Else Is So Wrong ?

Timothy Sandefur gives the standard libertarian response to the view that in the 19th Century, the U.S. was a deregulated laissez-faire free-market capitalist utopia, leading to the emergence of robber barons and other undesireables, in need of much restraint by government. Writes Sandefur, in response to a prompt from a reader,

It's not "[historical] revisionism," accurately speaking, because that is the prevailing interpretation. But I believe it is wrong, politically biased, and reflects economic and historical ignorance.

I agree entirely with Sandefur's analysis. But this presents a problem. If the prevailing interpretation is wrong, that makes the libertarian interpretation a case of historical revisionism. And historical revisionism is a dangerous place to be.

There are two possibilities that immediately spring to mind when faced with political disagreement. Those who disagree with you must be evil or stupid.

There are lots of problems with this way of thinking, as laid out by Loren Lomasky in "Libertarianism as if (the other 99% of) People Mattered." (This paper really needs to be put online in HTML form, or at least a complete .PDF)

David Friedman offers a possible explanation here:

I have been arguing politics for a long time. In arguing with people on the left, I find it is very hard to come to an agreement on the assumed facts surrounding the situations we are judging. My imaginary capitalist has capital because he worked hard clearing part of the boundless forest while his employee to be was being lazy and living on what he could gather--so it is entirely just that the capitalist gets part of the output of his land and his employee's labor. But the leftist doesn't like that hypothetical. His imaginary capitalist inherited his capital from a father who stole it. I don't like that hypothetical. I conclude that our moral intuitions are similar enough so that the same assumed facts push both of us in the same direction--and since we want to go in opposite directions we want so assume different facts.

Yet, I remained puzzled, especially by something which appears like it should be fairly straightforward: the economic history of the 19th century. Shouldn't these facts be relatively easy to establish? Who are the culprits here? The economic historians? The legal historians? The regular historians?

And if the prevailing interpretation of history on this subject is wrong, why is it wrong? How did it get to be wrong? Was it always wrong? Why hasn't it been fixed yet? Are libertarian historians just not doing a good enough job letting other historians know about their discoveries? Or are non-libertarian historians actively resisting the truth? If so, why? Political bias?

Consistent political bias among professional historians strong enough to keep the revisionist truth from getting out there and replacing mainstream myth sounds awfully like a conspiracy theory to me. And I don't like conspiracy theories. As I wrote a while back,

The academic study of cults and conspiracy theories has interested me for a while, primarily because, when traveling in political circles considered slightly out of the mainstream, you tend to run into cranks who embrace other minority viewpoints, not so much out of any reasoned deliberation, but precisely because those viewpoints are shared by only a small (and [self]-assumed priveledged) segment of the population. I've been reading Syracuse poly sci professor Michael Barkun's book on the subject, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, in which he attempts to explain why groups as seemingly distant from each other as UFO believers, Christian millennialists, and right-wing conspiracy theorists have becomes linked, with many believers in each distinct conspiracy theory cross-pollinating with other conspiracy theorists outside their original domain. Barkun argues that stigmitized knowledge is often accepted as true by conspiracy theorists just by virtue of it being stigmatized. Stigmitized knowledge, as Barkun defines it, means "claims to truth that the claiments regard as verified despite the marginalization of those claims by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error - universities, communities of scientific researchers, and the like." Barkun goes on to explain the various mechanisms by which this process occurs - put simply, conspiracy theories all rest, not only on the stigmatized knowledge claims themselves, but on the common and necessary belief that this knowledge became stigmatized for a reason, by a self-interested or otherwise nefarious organization or group of organizations in control of the orthodoxy.

Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules? Mark it zero!

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I would think

I would think self-selection, selective retention and all that good (bad) stuff comes into play here. This doesn't amount to a conspiracy.

I'm guessing you mean

I'm guessing you mean something like professors advising those PhD students whose theories fit within the dominant paradigm and granting them successful dissertation defenses, initial faculty hiring, tenure, etc., while making it more difficult for those outside the dominant paradigm to advance up the academic hierarchy? I think this would explain why, say, creationists have a hard time getting appointments to biology departments (and for good reason!), or why Austrians who focus primarily on the superiority of a priori economic methodology over empiricism have a hard time getting appointments to econ departments (and for good reason!), but outside of fundamental methodological issues, or views as radically outside the dominant paradigm as Holocaust denial or white supremacy, I don't see this kind of explanation as sufficient.

There are certainly a ton of openly free market economists (even economic historians), a lesser but still significant number of free market law professors (including legal historians), and a smattering of openly free market philosophy, history, and political science professors - all of whom have gotten tenure, either because of or despite their political views, and are free to publish and teach whatever they please. And this ignores all of the non-ideological academics who only care about the pursuit of truth or at least the pursuit of novelty, perhaps for selfish reasons, to make a name for themselves, make progress in their field, win some award, gain social status, etc.

Do we have a theory for why truth won't win out in due course (and why it hasn't won out in over a century), even in a semi-unfree market of ideas? Would we expect to see at least gradual progress, as increasingly more free market academics win tenure, and reverse the forces of self-selection and selective retention? Or does it require abrupt Kuhnian paradigmatic revolutions, where the old guard must first die out before the new guard can take its place? If so, how many generations do we expect this to take? Was academia always this biased in this specific direction, or did progressives successfully win their battle of ideas, and if so, why can't we do the same thing? Why hasn't it happened already?

I suppose I should link to Hayek's "The Intellectuals and Socialisms" for the benefit of those who haven't read it already, but it doesn't satisfactorily answer the question to my mind.

There are certainly a ton of

There are certainly a ton of openly free market economists (even economic historians), a lesser but still significant number of free market law professors (including legal historians), and a smattering of openly free market philosophy, history, and political science professors - all of whom have gotten tenure, either because of or despite their political views, and are free to publish and teach whatever they please.

I've heard it suggested to those aspiring to become tenured free market law, philosophy etc. professors that they keep their heads down until they've got tenure, unless they've got F.I.R.E. on their side or something. But this sounds sort of paranoid and I haven't got any evidence to back it up. Anyway, Volokh has a post on this topic here.

As for the field of history, isn't in the case that most libertarians don't buy the Kolko line about regulation and think rather fondly of the age of "robber barons" as an age of great productivity, fair play and accomplishment?

I've heard it suggested to

I've heard it suggested to those aspiring to become tenured free market law, philosophy etc. professors that they keep their heads down until they've got tenure, unless they've got F.I.R.E. on their side or something. But this sounds sort of paranoid and I haven't got any evidence to back it up.

I definitely know numerous law professors who've mentioned this, less so in other disciplines but it's generally a good idea to not rock the boat too much until you are tenured in any field. But then the question just applies to tenured profs.

As for the field of history, isn't in the case that most libertarians don't buy the Kolko line about regulation and think rather fondly of the age of "robber barons" as an age of great productivity, fair play and accomplishment?

Most libertarians in general? Or most libertarian academics?

In a certain sense, there

In a certain sense, there are two different kinds of historical revisionism. One is simply a reinterpretation of the historical evidence surrounding a time period/event. The other kind of revisionism is the more familiar, politically-inspired method used as apologism or smears. The first is sometimes called academic revisionism, the second negationism.

For the purposes of this discussion, Kolko's work is academic revisionism, whereas the libertarian apologia for robber barons as an era of glorious individualistic capitalism is simple negationism.

There are legimate schools of historical thought that openly call themselves revisionist, a fact that surprised me when I picked this up in an undergraduate history course.

Weren't there people in the

Weren't there people in the 19th century who were documenting how things were back then? That's different from something like the Holocaust (or the goings-on at Roswell), which was not common knowledge as it was occurring.

Consistent political bias

Consistent political bias among professional historians strong enough to keep the revisionist truth from getting out there and replacing mainstream myth sounds awfully like a conspiracy theory to me

Do you trust Soviet history or Nazi history? If not, why do you trust Progressive history? The Soviets controlled the universities in the USSR, the Nazis controlled the universities in Germany, and the Progressives control the universities in the US.

I often disagree with the

I often disagree with the interpretation of events by the news media in real time. Why should I not disagree with the interpretations of historians about events that happened in the past?

"Yet, I remained puzzled,

"Yet, I remained puzzled, especially by something which appears like it should be fairly straightforward: the economic history of the 19th century. Shouldn't these facts be relatively easy to establish?"

Sure, historians are very good at determining the facts of history. So, you determine that there was X much regulation in 1880, and the government was Y large.

But questions like "Was X too much or too little?" or "Did X and Y going up make things better or worse?" aren't historical questions at all, but political questions.

Oh, and all genuine historical work is revisionist in the sense that no historian publishes papers saying, "And so, everything we thought was correct was!"