Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Futility of Moderation

Will Wilkinson has written a piece on the virtue of moderation in the pursuit of liberty.  In it, he points to the futility of libertarians who…well, let him tell it in his own words:

Winning and keeping the allies needed to achieve practical political success has always been hard for libertarians. One reason it’s so hard is that the most popular brand of libertarian thought is more a theory of the illegitimacy of the state than a theory of government, and leaves no dignified place for political activity. Insofar as the Locke-inspired libertarianism of Ayn Rand, Murry Rothbard or Robert Nozick is a theory of government, it is a theory of minimal, constitutionally constrained government that looks nothing like any regime that has ever existed.

…a lot of libertarians don’t think this sort of minimal, constitutionally constrained government can possibly stay minimal, and that it would be better if there’s no state at all. That leaves no space for politics, as it is commonly understood.

My point here isn’t to criticize this picture, though there’s a lot wrong with it. My aim is simply to point out that there’s little room in the picture for the roiling adversarial mess of multiparty democratic politics. Accordingly, libertarians tend to see democratic politics as an ungodly festival of thuggery and mutual predation. Active political participation is seen as wicked, futile, or both. It’s hard to think of a political philosophy less likely to inspire its adherents to throw themselves into the hard work of real politics, or to see any virtue in it. A corollary of the standard libertarian stance is that almost every faction and interest group active in democratic politics is pursuing something it probably shouldn’t have through means nobody should be allowed to use. Libertarians tend to be pretty vocal about their disdain for the process, and everyone invested it in, which can make it hard for them to warm up to potential political allies, and vice versa, in those cases when they manage to overcome their contempt for politics and seek to get something done democratically.

I give Mr. Wilkinson much credit – he pretty much nails the view of the many libertarians who find no benefit in working within the system.  There are many specific points I might make in reply to the various statements (both these cited above and others in his piece), however I will focus on only one aspect of his views.

Wilkinson points to the futility of this “most popular” (at least he got this right) libertarian view.  He asks: how do you expect to move toward liberty if you aren’t willing to work with the political tools available?


Before getting to the point, first some introductions are in order.  Who is Will Wilkinson?

Will Wilkinson (born 1973) is an American writer who currently serves as Vice President of Policy at the Niskanen Center. Until August 2010, he was a research fellow at the Cato Institute where he worked on a variety of issues including Social Security privatization and, most notably, the policy implications of happiness research….Previously, he was Academic Coordinator of the Social Change Project and the Global Prosperity Initiative at The Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and, before that, he ran the Social Change Workshop for Graduate Students for The Institute for Humane Studies. His political philosophy is described by The American Conservative magazine as "Rawlsekian"; that is, a mixture of John Rawls's principles and Friedrich von Hayek's methods.  Wilkinson formerly described his political views as libertarian, but he now rejects that label.

Here are some not-standardly-libertarian things I believe: Non-coercion fails to capture all, maybe even most, of what it means to be free. Taxation is often necessary and legitimate. The modern nation-state has been, on the whole, good for humanity. (See Steven Pinker’s new book.) Democracy is about as good as it gets. The institutions of modern capitalism are contingent arrangements that cannot be justified by an appeal to the value of liberty construed as non-interference. The specification of the legal rights that structure real-world markets have profound distributive consequences, and those are far from irrelevant to the justification of those rights. I could go on.

So many things I might say, but again I do not want to divert from the one main point I wish to make.

What is the Niskanen Center?

The Niskanen Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates for environmentalism, immigration reform, civil liberties, and a national defense policy based on libertarian principles. The center is named after the late William A. Niskanen, a former economic adviser to president Ronald Reagan.

Funding for the center includes donors who seek to counter conservative hostility to anti-global warming measures. North Carolina businessman Jay Faison, a Republican donor, is a funder to the Niskanen Center and views it, along with the R Street Institute, as a route for climate action to gain a foothold within the GOP. Some supporters of the Niskanen Center are more traditionally aligned with liberal causes. They include the Open Philanthropies Project, which supports the Center's work to expand legal immigration, as well as the Lawrence Linden Trust for Conservation, which provided the Niskanen Center with a grant "to develop and analyze a potential economy-wide carbon tax", and the Nature Conservancy.

From the Niskanen Center website:

Established in 2014, the Niskanen Center is a libertarian 501(c)(3) think tank that works to change public policy through direct engagement in the policymaking process: developing and promoting proposals to legislative and executive branch policymakers, building coalitions to facilitate joint action, and marshaling the most convincing arguments in support of our agenda.  The Center’s main audience is the Washington insiders – policy-oriented legislators, presidential appointees, career civil servants in planning, evaluation and budget offices, congressional committee staff, engaged academics, and interest group analysts – who together decide the pace and direction of policy change.

The Center is named after William (Bill) Niskanen.  Bill was a long-time friend whom we knew as chairman of the Cato Institute.  Before his time at Cato, Bill was a defense policy analyst at RAND, director of program analysis at the Institute for Defense Analyses, assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget, professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, chief economist at the Ford Motor Company, professor of economics at UCLA, and a member (and later, acting chairman) of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Ronald Reagan.

The leadership of the center is made up of several individuals formerly associated with the Cato Institute – another libertarian-type think tank based in Washington; the Cato Institute is also dedicated toward policy recommendations.  The Institute was founded in 1974.

The Point

Now that all the background is out of the way, what is my point?  Wilkinson offers that the way to move toward liberty is to engage in the political process and compromise; neither fits well with dogmatic, principled libertarians.

So I ask, where are the major successes since 1974?  How have the last forty-two years (since the birth of Cato) of working within the system worked out?

In the years 1970 – 1974, the average annual budget deficit (on-budget and off-budget) was $14 billion.  In the years 2010 – 2014, the same number averages $ 969 billion.  A seventy-fold increase.  The total Federal debt at the end of 1974 was $484 billion; the comparable figure at the end of 2014 was $17.8 trillion.  A thirty-seven fold increase.

Federal Reserve assets in 1974 were $113.9 billion (see page 152); the current number is $4.5 trillion.  A forty-fold increase.

For comparison, the US GDP in 1974 was $1.55 trillion; in 2014 it was $17.35 trillion.  An eleven-fold increase.

What of US foreign interventions – dying and virtually dead in 1974 with the ending of Vietnam?  Today, the United States is directly or indirectly behind hot wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and Ukraine (and I am certainly missing a few).

The 1936 Federal Register was 2,620 pages long. It has grown steadily since then, with the 2012 edition weighing in at 78,961 pages (it has topped 60,000 pages every year for the last 20 years).


Taxes, spending, deficits, wars, financial intervention, laws and regulations – all increasing dramatically during the entire period of this moderate form of libertarianism.

Talk about futility.


  1. Will Wilkinson astutely points out that the current system is impervious to real, peaceful change. Since he's VP of a DC think-tank and likely makes a lot of money from suggesting ever-so-minute changes to the State, I suppose he finds this observation reassuring. After all, if we anarchists ever got our way, he'd have to get a real job...!

    The political machines will grind into dust any office-seeker who wants to upend the status quo. And if one does get through somehow, like Ron Paul did, he will be isolated and rendered harmless. They've made peaceful change impossible. We know what that means.

    Igor Karbinovskiy

  2. They've made peaceful change impossible, and we know that violent change makes things worse.

  3. I think many of these folks who don't understand how it can be that some Libertarians reject political action is pretty simple.
    Folks like Wikinson can't let go of political action, because they want their guy to win someday, so it will be Thier deficits, their wars, their interventionism, their laws, and their regulations. Really it come down to this, I don't reject political means simply because I don't think it works, it actually works very very well.
    I just want nothing to do with what works within the State's political means.
    Wilkinson types can't grasp this.
    The folks at the Cato institute and other think tanks, would absolutely love, and kill I think, for this power. Of course they would use it for "good", but what State actor doesn't?

    1. The social hierarchy that is government is a creation of the animal world and as such bears almost all of its savagery and stupidity but unfortunately very little of its cleverness and beauty.

      Unlike actors in nature the State is capable of enforcing a monopoly that is basically incontestable. This makes it is nearly impossible to evolve except in ways which satisfy the needs of the State.

      The solution for anarchists and real libertarians is to embrace panarchism and push to treat government like religion: as a belief system that is based on a person's choice not on someone else's use of force.

      It would be the civilized thing to do - after all, true believers of government are not your property either.

  4. As the earlier commenter stated about Ron Paul, electing the right people to office doesn't help, even if it is even possible.

    Working within the system is like trying to kill a snake by living in its belly.

  5. Principled libertarians that challenge the legitimacy of the political system itself must be causing an increasing amount of concern for the political hacks that like to give libertarian ideas lip-service. Once again, BM, you have laid bare the vacuousness of thinking in this tank whose true purpose is to promote greater involvement in, and thus support for, the archaic status quo organization of the political means too long used by the elite to impose their rule. The old canard of practicality to browbeat true thinkers (no tank funded by the elite required) into joining the battle for scraps from the adult's table has lost its previous impact on the liberty conversation. But, it's all they have and they will just keep repeating it ad nauseam. We do not need to overthrow the existing institutions that chain us, we only need to survive their inevitable collapse and be prepared to re-organize society based on the principles of liberty.