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What Is Neoclassical Liberalism?

Mises Daily: Tuesday, October 02, 2012 by

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[Jason Brennan • Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know Oxford, 2012 • xvi + 213 pages]

Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know

Jason Brennan, an outstanding libertarian political philosopher who teaches at Georgetown University, has written Libertarianism as an introductory guide, and much of the material in it will be familiar to readers of the Mises Daily; but it deserves careful study by anyone interested in its subject. Brennan has a talent for explaining libertarian views in striking and effective ways. The book consists of 105 questions about libertarianism and Brennan's responses to them.

In defending libertarianism, Brennan stands resolutely against the consensus position of his fellow political philosophers. Today, books touting the virtues of deliberative democracy are ubiquitous; but Brennan dissents.[1] Libertarians

do not regard democratic participation and deliberation as the highest form of life.… Many nonlibertarians have an almost religious reverence for democracy. They love democracy so much that they wish to see democracy in every aspect of life. They want democracy to be a way of living. They want everything open to democratic deliberation and decision making. Libertarians instead want to insulate people from political control. They do not want every decision to be subject to discussion. They believe one of the greatest freedoms of all is not having to justify yourself to others. If your entire life resembles a committee meeting, you are not free. (p. 69)

Brennan's objections would apply even to a democracy of the intelligent and informed; but in practice, democracy turns out to be rule by the incompetent. Brennan in his comments suggests a reborn Mencken:

Voters not only are systematically mistaken about basic economics, but they cannot figure out which candidates know more than they do … in democracy incompetent leaders with false beliefs win. Libertarians say: If the candidates seem clueless, it is because the system works. (p. 72)

Brennan displays little respect for the chief icon of the American democratic tradition. He notes that

many Americans would rate Abraham Lincoln as the greatest president. Yet Lincoln fought the civil war not to free slaves, but to force the South to remain part of the United States. In the course of war, Lincoln suppressed habeas corpus, created the first national draft, suppressed free speech, censored and punished newspaper editors who criticized his war efforts, and was at least complicit in waging total war against innocent Southern civilians. By normal standards, this makes him a monster. (If I did these things, you would regard me as a vile and despicable person.)[2] (pp. 62–3)

If Brennan rejects democracy, what has he to put in its place? It will come as no surprise that his answer is libertarianism, but it is a different sort of libertarianism from that which the term will suggest to many of my readers. Followers of Murray Rothbard regard each person as a self-owner. Self-owners have the right to acquire property; and although the free market that results from implementing libertarian rights leads to greater prosperity than any alternative arrangement, the principal justification for these rights does not lie in their good consequences. To the contrary, they are natural rights.

To Brennan, this is not libertarianism sans phrase, but "hard libertarianism." It is but one of three forms of libertarianism, and not the one he prefers. Indeed, he says that in "some respects, it is an aberration inside classical liberal political thought" (p. 11).

What are the other forms? First is classical liberalism. Supporters of this position, though they favor the free market,

are less opposed than hard libertarians to using government to solve problems.… Classical liberals often believe the government should provide public goods(such as roads or national defense), a social safety net of some sort, and certain services, such as public schooling or, better yet, public vouchers for private schools. (p. 9)

Milton Friedman was a quintessential classical liberal.

Brennan distinguishes a third variety of libertarianism; and, if I am not mistaken, this is his own position. Neoclassical liberals often defend the same policies as classical liberals but "they have an explicit, foundational concern for social justice" (p. 11, emphasis in original).[3]

The essence of the position is this. Property rights, though highly desirable, are to a considerable degree conventional. That being so, the poor cannot reasonably be expected to accept a system of property rights that leaves them without adequate means to live a good life. To provide them with these means is a matter of justice, not charity. It by no means follows, neoclassical liberals say, that the government should directly aid the poor. Whether it should depends on circumstances; and almost always, it is better to rely on the free market. But property owners do not have, as a matter of justice, an absolute right against governmental programs of redistribution.

In a key passage, Brennan says,

Neoclassical liberals agree with hard libertarians that everyone has a right to acquire and use property. However, they add that reasonable people dispute the exact nature and scope of property rights. Property rights are sets of conventions, and there are many different conventions any group of people could live under.… Neoclassical liberals say that it would be unreasonable to demand that everyone accept and abide by these conventions unless they had a sufficient stake in them. Thus, if one set of property rights tended to immiserate the poor or leave innocent people without any wealth or opportunity, that would be reason to reject those property rights conventions. (p. 133)

In this introductory survey, Brennan does not attempt a full-scale defense of this position, and I have no doubt that if he were to do so, it would be well worth close attention. I should like, in an equally preliminary way, to indicate three possible sources of trouble for this neoclassical account of property rights.

First, it is no doubt true that many aspects of property rights are conventional: Brennan gives as examples what exactly one has to do to acquire unowned property and what constitutes abandonment of property. It does not follow from this, though, that all aspects of property are conventional and subject to veto by groups who would do better with other sets of conventions.[4] If one accepts a Lockean account of property acquisition, then the conventions are matters that must be settled within that framework. People are not free to abandon it for some other scheme of things. When I write a book review for this site, many things are up to me, e.g., which book to write about and what to say about it. There aren't fixed rules that settle these questions, regardless of my decisions. It does not follow from this, though, that I could devote my column to professional wrestling or a list of my favorite bad jokes. Conventions and decisions have their limits.

Brennan might answer that my point begs the question against him. What if someone rejects the Lockean account altogether? Would I wish to say that the position is so compelling that no one could reasonably reject it? These questions raise vital issues, but I do not think they are to the point here. Why we should favor a Lockean account of property is of course a matter hard libertarians have to address. But the issue now up for discussion is different. It is whether the conventional elements within that account allow room for the redistributive moves Brennan wishes to make. If he answers this by saying that he is not presupposing a Lockean account at all, then I have nothing further to add on the point. I wish only to clarify whether Brennan seeks to modify the Lockean account or to abandon it for something else.

A second question for neoclassical liberals is this. Should one not distinguish two cases? In the first, a set of property rights systematically excludes certain groups of people from doing well. As an example, laws prohibit members of racial minorities from owning land. In the other case, the set of property rights does not exclude the possibility that people will not do very well under it. It may turn out in a free market that your services are not in a demand: no one wants what you have to offer. You are in a bad position, but the set of property rights has not systematically excluded you from an attempt to live a good life. Is not the case for interference with property rights much stronger in the first example than in the second?

A final difficulty for neoclassical liberals brings to bear an excellent point that Brennan himself makes. Conventions that establish property rights usually involve the legal systems of particular countries. But, as Brennan notes,

Libertarians believe that membership in a nation-state is, in some sense, morally arbitrary.… Libertarians deny we have special ties to our fellow citizens the way we have special ties to friends and family. Other citizens are strangers. I have no special connection to people in California as opposed to Ontario. (p. 76, emphasis in original)

If this is right, why do the poor of one particular nation have a claim that wealth in their society be redistributed? Should not such claims take in all the people in the world? If they did that, would this not allow very massive redistribution indeed, to an extent that abandons a recognizably libertarian position altogether? Perhaps Brennan could answer, though, by saying that it is enough to satisfy his requirements for justice to the poor that all immigration restrictions be ended. He notes that some economists think that "eliminating all immigration restrictions would double world GDP" (p. 150).

Although I doubt that neoclassical liberalism is the wave of the libertarian future, I recommend Brennan's book highly. He is especially good on foreign policy. He trenchantly remarks,

Sweden and Switzerland are not targets for terrorism because they do not bully the world. If we want to stop Middle Eastern terrorists from targeting the United States, we should stop messing with the Middle East.… Since 9/11, the United States has become increasingly oppressive toward its own people. Obama asserts that he has the right to assassinate American citizens without due process. (pp. 154, 157)

Notes

[1] For an influential recent defense of deliberative democracy, see David Estlund, Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework, (Princeton, 2009). See my discussion of this book, "An Epistemic Justification of Democracy?" in Jörg Guido Hülsmann and Stephan Kinsella, eds., Property, Freedom, and Society: Essays in Honor of Hans-Hermann Hoppe (Mises Institute, 2009).

[2] Brennan is incorrect to say "The Supreme Court demanded he [Lincoln] respect habeas corpus. Lincoln ignored the Supreme Court with impunity"(p. 73). Lincoln ignored a writ of habeas corpus issued by Chief Justice Taney, sitting as a federal circuit judge.

[3] John Tomasi, Free Market Fairness (Princeton, 2012) is an excellent defense of neoclassical liberalism. Tomasi takes the heroic course of arguing that Hayek cannot be considered an opponent of social justice. See my review in the Mises Review.

[4] I am indebted here to a conversation with Gary Chartier