Brad DeLong Misrepresents My Position on Libertarianism and Asteroid Defense

In a recent post, I expressed my disagreement with co-blogger Sasha Volokh’s view that libertarianism condemns government funding of asteroid defense, pointing out that most prominent libertarian thinkers also disagree with him.

Through selective quotation, Brad DeLong tries to make it seem like I endorsed Sasha’s position. He does so by quoting the part of the post where I explained why I don’t think Sasha’s position is ridiculous or “insane,” as DeLong had earlier claimed. I pointed out that Sasha’s view is no more “insane” than any other moral theory that requires absolute protection for certain rights, regardless of consequences. Any such theory risks catastrophe in cases where violating those rights is the only way to avert it. I also noted that “[s]cenarios like the above [including asteroid defense] are one of the main reasons why I’m not a rights-absolutist myself.” An academic of DeLong’s eminence should surely be able to tell the difference between believing that View X isn’t insane and actually agreeing with X. For example, I don’t think that DeLong’s own views are insane. But that doesn’t prevent me from disagreeing with him on a wide range of issues.

DeLong further distorts my position by claiming that I was criticizing Jonathan Adler’s post on this subject. In fact, I completely agree with what Adler said and nothing in my post contradicts him.

Finally, DeLong claims that “any theory of moral action that privileges one particular set of rights or goods lexicographically–i.e., “based on absolute respect for certain rights” and not for other rights or duties–above all others is, ipso facto, insane.” That’s a remarkable statement. All of the great moral thinkers who advocate absolute rights – Kant, Ronald Dworkin and Alan Gewirth, Robert Nozick, and others – these people were not only wrong (as I believe they were) but actually “insane.” That kind of sweeping dismissal of opposing views says more about DeLong’s intolerance than about those views’ merits.

UPDATE: In comments to his post, DeLong claims that he never represented me as having agreed with Sasha, merely as having said that Sasha’s views aren’t “insane.” I think it’s pretty obvious that DeLong’s original post went well beyond that, since he wrote that “along come Sasha Volokh and Ilya Somin to explain that Jonathan Adler fails to understand their version of libertarian ideas,” after which he quotes Sasha’s language claiming that libertarianism is incompatible with asteroid defense and the part of my post stating that Sasha’s position isn’t “insane.” This clearly gives the impression that Sasha and I have a common “version of libertarian ideas” that includes opposition to asteroid defense.

DeLong also claims that my view is at odds with Adler’s because “Adler claims that positions like Sasha Volokh’s are laughable caricatures of libertarian thought, rather than one–important–strand within it.” In fact, however, Adler never said that moral opposition to asteroid defense is a “caricature” of libertarian thought. Rather he said that it was a caricature to claim that libertarian constitutional theorists believe that asteroid defense falls outside of Congress’ enumerated powers under the Constitution. On this latter point, Sasha, Adler, and I all agree that Congress does have that authority, as Sasha himself noted in his own post. Adler himself has repeatedly pointed this out, including in the comments to DeLong’s post. I also don’t think that Sasha’s view qualifies as an “important” strand of libertarian thought, since most other libertarian thinkers disagree with it. One blog post – even a post at the VC – does not qualify as an “important strand.”

UPDATE #2: DeLong further responds to this post here, claiming that he didn’t misrepresent me. I think I covered nearly all the points he makes in my first update, so there is no need to respond further. DeLong, however, manages to misrepresent me further in the very process of denying that he misrepresented me. He refers to my supposed “claim that Immanuel Kant’s claim that you have a moral duty not to lie to insane ax murderers about the whereabouts of their would-be victim is a reasonable claim.” Careful (or even not-so-careful) readers of my posts might have noticed that I said absolutely nothing about Kant’s position on lying, which I indeed believe was unreasonable (though not insane). What I argued was that claims of absolute rights (including Kant’s) are not necessarily “insane,” as DeLong claimed that they were. That doesn’t mean I have to defend the reasonableness – or even the “sanity” – of every application of Kant’s theory to every conceivable situation.