I was recently read this little exchange between Bryan Caplan and Roderick Long regarding libertarianism and equality. Caplan uses it as an opportunity to once again recapitulate his objections to this thing called “left” + “libertarianism.” In Caplan’s mind, microeconomics is the inconvenience that dooms the left libertarian critique. I don’t think so.
IMHO, the differences between “left libertarians” and “libertarians” are more methodological than conceptual. For example, the “Left Libertarian” approach is usually firmly rooted in “class analysis” and often, to a large extent, “dialectical thickness,” the latter used both to examine the implied coercion of socio-cultural contexts and synthesize egalitarianism consistent with libertarian rights theory. Many “libertarians,” including Caplan, simply reject this type of approach. Indeed, Caplan rejects much of traditional class theory. Instead, Caplan hangs his hat on his “Rational Irrational” voter theory which holds that the government we end up with is more or less the government that most want. So, much of Big Government intervention is indeed preferred by most and skewed towards them. In this sense, Caplan is aligned with the traditional view of the Democratic Party regarding intervention. Where he differs with them is that he views this preferred intervention not as a means to “equalize outcomes” but rather as means to keep Standford-Binet High IQers from their just financial rewards. Cue up Caplan’s Revenge of the Nerds Class Theory.
Notice: For financial success, the main measure where nerds now excel, governments make quite an effort to equalize differences. But on other margins of social success, where many nerds still struggle, laissez-faire prevails.
It’s suspicious – and if you combine the Jock/Nerd Theory with some evolutionary psych, it makes sense. When the best hunter in the tribe gets rich, his neighbors will probably ask nicely for a share, if they dare to ask at all. But if the biggest nerd in the tribe gets rich, how long will it take before the jocks show up and warn him that “You’d better share and share alike”?
Punchline: Through the lens of the Jock/Nerd Theory of History, the welfare state doesn’t look like a serious effort to “equalize outcomes.” It looks more like a serious effort to block the “revenge of the nerds” – to keep them from using their financial success to unseat the jocks on every dimension of social status.
It’s fair to say Caplan has an IQ fetish that pokes through in his writings from time to time. For Caplan, Stanford-Binet IQ remains the single best predictor of one’s future lot in life. Here Caplan is seemingly aligned with the old-time, staunch “progressive” educational thinking(“IQ” is more or less a “progressive” invention). But he goes further, often using how many standard deviations one scores from the statistical mean in a relatively simple test of completing progressions in numerical sequences or completing verbal analogies as the unifying causative principle in such classical concepts as comparative advantage. Silly me…my understanding of comparative advantage is that it explains trade as a function of opportunity costs. Casting comparative advantage as Stanford-Binet Low IQers doing menial work so as to allow Stanford-Binet High-IQers to pursue their intellectual gifts is pretty bogus. That’s not what comparative advantage means. Are such things like professional tenure, barrier of entry restrictions for highly-paid professionals, closed shops, special privileges based on seniority, government subsidies, etc(all characteristics of so-called high IQ, high income earner groups) explained by comparative advantage or public choice? When so-called Stanford-Binet High IQers have stupid ideas on such topics as economics or population control, they are not, as Caplan suggests, High-IQ misanthropes; rather, they are just plain stupid. That is to say, they lack the the high-end cognitive ability to make intelligent contributions in a specific field that they are nonetheless being highly paid for. Are these morons really explained by comparative advantage or is, perhaps, public choice a better explanation?
The problem with Caplan and his overriding thesis is that, IMHO, it’s pretty difficult to measure something that is not actually understood. And we don’t understand human intelligence, certainly not in any evolutionary sense. Caplan’s empirical observations that highly correlate income with Progressive institutional measurement of “IQ”– given that being credentialed with a progressive education is a significant barrier entry to the “high-income” workplace, and that the status of one’s credential is, of course, in large part, a determination of how this progressive educational system measures your ‘fitness,” that is, your IQ–may only be an exercise in selection bias. If education were merely solving a “signaling problem,” then why has it become so prohibitively expensive, requiring more and more massive government subsidies to attain this barrier of entry certification into high-income employment? Riddle me that, batman.
Caplan mocked to a degree the left-libertarian critique of the landlord-tenant contract, but I would suggest that Caplan’s microeconomic explanation of why the corporate world has instituted, say, prohibitive privacy-invasive drug screening and testing–workers gladly accept this double-standard because it raises their wages–is comically laughable. Without old-school libertarian class analysis, Caplan is forced to conclude, based on his microeconomic analysis, that such things as the National security State must dramatically raise wages. This is because we supposedly have a relatively meritorious capitalist free market and workers will only accept this dramatic invasion of privacy if it nonetheless dramatically raises wages. Yeah, right…
The National Security State is not just the State. As Nick Turse points out in his book, The Complex, the National Security State is very much a joint public-private enterprise. And Caplan’s political economic model of the Rational-Irrational Voter along with his microeconomic analyses devoid of dialectics(context), all tied together by some school boy Jock-Nerd model of the State, can’t explain any of this. Indeed, Caplan is Exhibit A of the incoherence of libertarianism sundered from the ideological rigor of class conflict.
As BrainPolice wrote in this essay, What is Left-Libertarianism, Left-Libertarianism is a reclamation of the historical libertarian heritage of liberalism and anarchism. It’s the old school version of libertarianism. In the context of catastrophic liberal institutional failure, the only ideological struggle is class conflict. And the only consistent political theory of class conflict is libertarianism, the old school version of it. And that is why I am a Left Libertarian.