Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Watered Down Libertarian

The below Greg Mankiw blog post is truly odd. He writes:

A couple years ago, I participated in a panel discussion on libertarianism in Mike Sandel's Justice class, along with my friend and colleague Jeff Miron.  Jeff is a true libertarian, and he defended that position with gusto.  By comparison to Jeff, I seemed lacking in conviction.  I described myself as a "libertarian at the margin."  By that, I meant that given our starting point today, I believe more reliance on individual liberty and less on governmental solutions is usually a step in the right direction, but I often recoil at more radical libertarian positions.

David Brooks's column yesterday offers a good explanation of skepticism about big radical ideas, such as pure libertarianism.  It made me feel better about my watered-down variety.
Notice there is no apparent guiding principle to Mankiw's thinking. From where we stand now libertarianism is "usually a step in the right direction," he says

But as to when Mankiw actually thinks moving toward liberty is a good idea and when it is not, he keeps silent. No specifics, no principles.

I really think he is silent on this because he has no guiding principle(s) as to when liberty is a good idea and when it is not. Which means at some point his decision making process, as far as I can tell is just mush. It's typical Washington type thinking. Mankiw and other Washington-types can be very bright people, but they don't have the balls to firmly stand up for anything for fear it will hurt their chances of being selected for the next undersecretary position. Under the right circumstances, these kinds could justify pretty much anything. Scary.


  1. Wenzel,

    Did you catch the video on ZH of Hugh Hendry and Jeffery Sachs of Columbia? Besides the fact that Hendry was rude and condescending to him (not without reason!), Sachs main beef with Hendry's "liquidationist" philosophy seemed to be that it was extreme and not "necessary" yet given that more reasonable, marginal, small steps might be taken in the eurozone first.

    You're right-- this is how these people think. Sachs is totally deluded and believes that default is somehow, with careful, intelligent planning and management, avoidable. He doesn't actually understand economics or the finance of debt and doesn't see that these defaults are inevitable, and all time spent avoiding them simply makes the final reckoning that much more severe.

    I believe these people are prisoners of their own frail psychologies, resulting in them being effectively brain dead, whatever their intellectual capabilities may be. These people are incredibly risk/change adverse, which is why they inevitably subscribe to socialism and statism, the two truest forms of conservative political ideology known to man. They want to live in their comfy, slow-moving, methodical and predictable worlds forever. They want to ignore the chaos and instability their policies have on numerous individuals around the world who are the means for their ends. When the tables are turned and they must face the instability and mortality of their social position, they recoil in horror and terror. They'll do anything to put the world back the way it was before-- but their psychological defense and coping mechanisms have inured them to the unavoidable reality of the 100-ft thick concrete wall they are rocketing towards at the speed of sound.

  2. Re: the BBC debate: That was amazing. I'm pretty sure Hendry is an Austrian, or at least Austrian-esque, given this talk, and a profile of him a while ago that showed some of his books, and among them was Huerta de Soto's "Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles". It was a little weird when he called for legislation for stop banks from paying dividends, but still, great interview.

    On the topic of this post: during the whole Rand Paul fiasco, one consistent thing that kept emerging in all the MSM's discussion of libertarianism was the demonization of the consistency and principles of libertarian theory. I never thought I'd see the day when someone was attacked for being too consistent!

  3. Anon,

    I'd be careful about confusing a person who advocates certain Austrian principles and reads some of the literature with someone who consistently applies those principles. There's certainly nothing Austrian about advocating for regulation as Hendry did. He is still fun to watch. I have not seen enough of him to get a judgment of why or what he believes, but I am with you that he at least seems familiar with and sympathetic to the Austrian school.

  4. Rob

    Maybe Mankiw might simply reflecting the normal conformism of academics and intellectuals more generally. Academia has many of the worst characteristics of a small town. Although economics has some tolerance for free market views, broader academia does not. Left liberal views predominate there , from quantity not quality, and thus manage to control the high ground.

    To live work and thrive in that small town you have to 'get along'. In general having a thick skin is not something one learns in books. So conformism of some sort with the majority is the likely result. For libertarians and conservatives in academia, this means any criticism of the left liberal orthodoxy must not be too blunt, too personal and must never question the motives and high ideals of the villagers. This politeness is never reciprocated as left liberals are the king of the castle and we are not. Hayek and Friedman always were most painfully respectful to their opponents 'good' motives. One of the joys of Rothbard is he never bothers with this uselessness.