Two Fallacies that Cause (Excessive) Libertarian Despair:

Tyler Cowen's counsel of libertarian despair (discussed in my previous post), and other similar works by fearful libertarians (e.g. - this slightly less pessimistic contribution to the same symposium by Brink Lindsey) are, in my view heavily influenced by two important fallacies that lead many libertarians to be more pessimistic than is warranted.

I. The All or Nothing Fallacy.

One is the "all or nothing" fallacy, which leads many to conclude that because libertarians can't completely eliminate excessive government, that means that we can't achieve anything worthwhile by trying to cut it back incrementally. For example, as I argued in my previous post, Tyler provides good reasons for believing that complete victory is impossible, but almost no argument against the possibility of partial success. Of course, the inability to achieve complete success is not unique to libertarianism. Our liberal, conservative, and socialist rivals have the same problem. Liberals are far from achieving their goal of creating a European-size welfare state in the US, and have little prospect of succeeding in the near future; social conservatives are probably even farther away from fully imposing "traditional values" on society and that goal keeps on slipping even further away. Some liberals and conservatives have given up because of all or nothing thinking, but most recognize that partial success is still worth striving for. We should do likewise.

The all or nothing fallacy is not unique to libertarians. You see it also in the views of those 1960s radicals who believed that nothing short of complete social revolution was worth striving for. But for reasons that I can't fully explain, I think that libertarian activists are, on average, more susceptible to this error than liberals or conservatives.

II. Overstating the Importance of Recent Events.

The second fallacy is overstating the importance of the most recent events. Psychologists call this the "availability heuristic." We overvalue the significance of recent data because they tend to be uppermost in our minds and of course get more coverage in the media. Thus, many libertarians despair because Bush's "big government" conservatism has enlarged the state, while the Democrats have turned away from Bill Clinton's moderate, partly libertarian agenda. However, it is possible to point to equally bleak short periods in the past that were even worse, yet proved not to be a harbinger of the future. Between 1965 and 1975, for example, we saw 1) the rise of the Great Society, 2) government's mishandling of the Vietnam War, 3) Nixon's big government conservatism (even more thoroughgoing than Bush's, complete with price controls and a proposal for nationalized health care), 4) the growing popularity of socialist and communist ideology in much of the world, and 5) the beginning of the oil crisis, with its accompanying perverse government interventions. Yet libertarians would have been wrong to give up in 1975 merely because the most recent trends were against them. Indeed, the next twenty years saw substantial movement in a libertarian direction both in the US, and in many other parts of the world. And we would be equally wrong to give up because of today's less extreme adverse trends. Because of our successes in the 1980s and 90s, we - unlike the libertarians of 1975 - have grown used to the idea that we are destined to win, and thereby more likely to be deeply disappointed when we suffer setbacks. This reaction is understandable, but wrongheaded.

That is not to say that libertarianism does not face serious challenges or that libertarians haven't sometimes shot themselves in the foot, as with the waste of time and resources poured into the Libertarian Party. It does not even prove that we have not entered a period where the libertarian cause has, for some reason, become hopeless. However, we are not justified in despairing merely because we have failed to win a complete victory or because we have suffered several years of political setbacks. Those who counsel despair need much stronger evidence than that to prove their point.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Two Fallacies that Cause (Excessive) Libertarian Despair:
  2. Does Libertarian Success Just Produce More Government, and Should We Give Up Trying to Shrink It?