Where Rand Paul and I Part Company

 

In my newest weekly column for the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas, I look at the difference between hard-line libertarianism—of which I am not a proponent—and classical liberalism, the term for the philosophy that best describes my own political and economic thinking. As I note, the prominence of Senator Rand Paul has led to an improper conflation of the two schools of thought.

A sampling:

It is important to understand the differences in views between the strong libertarian and classical liberal position. Serious hard-line libertarian thinkers include Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess. Rothbard believes nonaggression is the sole requirement of a just social order. For Hess, “libertarianism is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to use and dispose of as he sees fit.” There are large kernels of truth in both propositions. It is quite impossible to see how any social order could be maintained if there were no limitations against the use, or threatened use, of force to enslave or butcher other people, which Hess’s proposition of absolute self-ownership strongly counteracts.

Yet the overarching question is how does a group of people move from the Hobbesian “war of all against all” toward a peaceful society? Hess claims that stable institutions are created by “voluntary association and cooperation.” Again, strong libertarians are on solid ground in defending (most) private contracts against government interference, which is why Lochner v. New York (1905), reviled as it is by most constitutional thinkers, was right in striking down New York’s sixty hours per week maximum labor statute. Yet the hard-line libertarian position badly misfires in assuming that any set of voluntary contracts can solve the far larger problem of social order, which, as Rothbard notes, in practice requires each and every citizen to relinquish the use of force against all others. Voluntary cooperation cannot secure unanimous consent, because the one violent holdout could upset the peace and tranquility of all others.

The sad experience of history is that high transaction costs and nonstop opportunism wreck the widespread voluntary effort to create a grand social alliance to limit the use of force. Society needs a coercive mechanism strong enough to keep defectors in line, but fair enough to command the allegiance of individuals, who must share the costs of creating that larger and mutually beneficial social order. The social contract that Locke said brought individuals out of the state of nature was one such device. The want of individual consent was displaced by a consciously designed substantive program to protect both liberty and property in ways that left all members of society better off than they were in the state of nature. Only constrained coercion can overcome the holdout problems needed to implement any principle of nonaggression.

There are important intellectual distinctions between the two outlooks, which deserve to be explored. Read the piece in full for my sense of where those lines should be drawn.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @KCMulville

    I’d prefer to sit back with popcorn and let the libertarians slug it out, but I’d like to throw in an important distinction. Whereas classical libertarians are more willing than the hard-core to grant government powers, both styles of libertarian believe that there’s a natural set of tasks that government is responsible for.

    “Limited government” means that the state may not employ power until it has been first granted by the governed. But technically, with “limited government,” there is no prior restriction on what the governed may grant power for. What matters is whether government stays within its contractual limits.

    A libertarian might very well decide that no matter what’s in the Constitution, government doesn’t have the right to do {such-and-such}.

    A conservative like me might argue that … even it’s unwise for people to grant government a particular power, agreeing in spirit that government sucks at exercising that power … but if it’s in the Constitution, that matters more than what I might think is “natural” to the role of government.

    Even if the people grant the government power unwisely, it’s their power to grant. Consent trumps nature.

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    @MothershipGreg

    Is Rand Paul a “hard-line libertarian”?

    The flat tax is preferred because it reduces private incentives to game the tax system and, likewise, the ability of government officials to unfairly target their opponents. The optimal theory of taxation minimizes the distortions created by the need to fund the government activities that maintain public order and supply infrastructure. The classical liberal thus agrees with the hard-line libertarian that progressive taxation, with its endless loopholes, is unsustainable in the long run. At the same time, the classical liberal finds it incomprehensible that anyone would want to condemn all taxes as government theft from a hapless citizenry.

    We’re all familiar with the “taxation is theft” crowd, and we know that lots of those folks love Ron Paul.  However, this certainly doesn’t sound like “hardline libertarian” talk:

    Sen. Paul tells Newsmax TV in an exclusive interview: “What I’ve promoted is a flat tax, 17 percent for individuals as well as corporations with about a $50,000 deduction for families, similar to what Steve Forbes promotes.

    Is Rand Paul a dissembler, or has Prof. Epstein been hanging out with Prof. Yoo too much?

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    @MothershipGreg

    I want links to Rand Paul staking out “hardline libertarian” positions (“hardline libertarian” has a much better ring than “extreme libertarian“, FYI).

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    @BryanGStephens

    I really liked this. It spells out many of my objections to what gets presented as libertarianism.

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    @RyanM
    Larry3435: I am not sure which annoys me more:  The use of the word libertarian to describe (or self-describe) anarchists, or the use of the word liberal to describe leftist utopians.  I offer the following proposition:  The words libertarian and classical liberal mean exactly the same thing.  They are synonyms.   · 1 hour ago

    Couldn’t disagree more, Larry.  When you listen to libertarians talk about “the nonaggression principle,” you aren’t hearing about classical liberalism.  You may disagree with those libertarians, and you can wish that libertarianism looked a lot more like classical liberalism – you can wish that they really did mean exactly the same thing, but they don’t. Sure would be nice if they did, though.

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    @RyanM
    Mothership_Greg: Is Rand Paul a “hard-line libertarian”?

    The flat tax is preferred because it reduces private incentives to game the tax system and, likewise, the ability of government officials to unfairly target their opponents. The optimal theory of taxation minimizes the distortions created by the need to fund the government activities that maintain public order and supply infrastructure. The classical liberal thus agrees with the hard-line libertarian that progressive taxation, with its endless loopholes, is unsustainable in the long run. At the same time, the classical liberal finds it incomprehensible that anyone would want to condemn all taxes as government theft from a hapless citizenry.

    We’re all familiar with the “taxation is theft” crowd, and we know that lots of those folks love Ron Paul.  However, this certainly doesn’t sound like “hardline libertarian” talk:

    Sen. Paul tells Newsmax TV in an exclusive interview: “What I’ve promoted is a flat tax, 17 percent for individuals as well as corporations with about a $50,000 deduction for families, similar to what Steve Forbes promotes.

    I do agree that Epstein better describes Rand’s father.

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    @TobiasVaughnsEyebrow

    Rand Paul supports a flat tax of only 17%? It doesn’t get much more hard-core libertarian than that. Even Murray Rothbard supported a flat tax of 18%.*

    * Probably not true.

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    @CrowsNest

    Intra-libertarian food fight! Awesome.

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    @BrentB67

    I am confused Dr. Epstein. You wrote an article about Rand Paul, but he isn’t quoted anywhere in it and you take  issue with how two opinion columnists characterize Rand Paul. That seems pretty thin ice on which to implicate the Senator into some ideology I am not sure he is on record supporting.

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    @CrowsNest

    I’m also glad that Prof. Epstein mentioned Hobbes and the state of nature in its original sense. 

    While some contemporary libertarians still hold this classical view of the state of nature prior to the social contract, there is a large strain within contemporary libertarianism that appeals to a somewhat flattened account of the noble savage introduced by Rousseau in his Second Discourse–a man who is fundamentally good, but who is corrupted by society and by government.

    Strange, then, if that’s the lesson he was seeking to teach, that Rousseau didn’t arrive at a libertarian politics. Our contemporary friends should wonder at that, and try to understand why he did not.

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    @thedaner

    “I like Richard Epstein, but he has erected a giant straw man in this piece comparing classical liberalism (libertarianism) with hard-line libertarian thought, and placing Rand Paul in the latter camp. Well I know for a fact that a majority of “hard-line” libertarians do not view Rand as one of them, and in fact view him with suspicion and as not pure enough for the cause. Still, they acknowledge that he’s better than any other elected official at articulating libertarian principles, which I guess is why there is so much knee-jerk conflation of the two. But Epstein railing against Paul for standing opposed to his classical liberalism is ridiculous. Whether on taxation, the federal bureaucracy, the welfare state or foreign policy, Rand skews far closer to Epstein’s classical liberalism than to Rothbard’s doctrinal libertarianism. 

    I am sympathetic to both strands, but comparing them side-by-side is a mistake. The hard-line libertarianism that Epstein laments is more philosophical and academic, whereas classical liberalism essentially prescribes how a practical implementation of libertarian principles would work in the real world. The two strands are not in conflict; they are complimentary approaches to thinking about libertarian

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    @thedaner
    … applications to politics. The hard-line vision establishes principles and dogmas most likely to yield the best society, while the classical liberal method is to take the same principles and apply them to the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. I’m surprised that this otherwise brilliant libertarian scholar has such a blind spot about Rand Paul.”

    That was from my Facebook today… I’m an unabashed Rand fan, so take it with the requisite grains of salt (unless you agree!). Just vexed by Epstein’s thorough mischaracterization of Paul .

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    @Larry3435
    Ryan M

    Larry3435: I am not sure which annoys me more:  The use of the word libertarian to describe (or self-describe) anarchists, or the use of the word liberal to describe leftist utopians.  I offer the following proposition:  The words libertarian and classical liberal mean exactly the same thing.  They are synonyms.   · 1 hour ago

    Couldn’t disagree more, Larry.  When you listen to libertarians talk about “the nonaggression principle,” you aren’t hearing about classical liberalism.  You may disagree with those libertarians, and you can wish that libertarianism looked a lot more like classical liberalism – you can wish that they really did mean exactlythe same thing, but they don’t. Sure would be nice if they did, though. · 2 hours ago

    Do you think Rand Paul favors limiting the role of government to enforcing non-aggression?  Or even Ron Paul?  Does anyone in public office think that?  I’m not talking about internet commentors, who can call themselves anything they like.  I’m talking about real life.

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    @
    BrentB67: I am confused Dr. Epstein. You wrote an article about Rand Paul, but he isn’t quoted anywhere in it and you take  issue with how two opinion columnists characterize Rand Paul. That seems pretty thin ice on which to implicate the Senator into some ideology I am not sure he is on record supporting. · 3 hours ago

    Read the Tanenhaus and Rutenberg article he links in the introduction. I think he’s taking for granted their account of Paul. Epstein didn’t make that very clear, though.

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    @JamesGawron

    Dr. Epstein,

    Your article is helpful as I can more clearly define my own position v. Libertarian or Classical Liberal.

    Kant’s position at its root is Ethical.  Right is Kant’s relevant idea.  Right allows one only to employ coercion against a coercer.  Also, the enforcement of Right must maximize the Liberty of All.  This is the sacrosanct ethical principle of Right.

    However, Kant acknowledges an inherent problem of Right.  Without a government, ownership can not be established Conclusively.  Without a government property is only Provisional.  Thus a Constitutional Republic must be created and maintained to establish property Conclusively.  The implication is that by only securing property provisionally Chaos is maximized not Liberty.

    The classical liberal avoids such over-the-top rhetoric. Instead, he seeks to maximize the net social gain from the tax system, so that each taxpayer receives a bundle of government services whose value exceeds the cost of the tax.

    As desirable as this end is, it is strictly utilitarian and thus for Kant non-ethical.  Kant is no Classical Liberal by definition.  On the other hand he would find Rothbard’s principle simplistic and non-functional.

    As you might guess, I like Kant.

    Regards,

    Jim

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    @RyanM

    This is why I typically refer to myself as a Epsteinian.

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    @Larry3435

    I am not sure which annoys me more:  The use of the word libertarian to describe (or self-describe) anarchists, or the use of the word liberal to describe leftist utopians.  I offer the following proposition:  The words libertarian and classical liberal mean exactly the same thing.  They are synonyms.  

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    @TobiasVaughnsEyebrow

    Yet the overarching question is how does a group of people move from the Hobbesian “war of all against all” toward a peaceful society?

    This one’s easy. Bitcoin.

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    @Rodin

    I really appreciate this article. I view myself as a classical liberal, but currently accepted political identities do not seem to accept or understand this designation. So when asked I say I “tend toward Libertarian” in my politics. But this article helps crystalize a boundary for me that maybe I can articulate better as a result.

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