A Response to Will Wilkinson

This past summer, in a post, Libertarianism on the Rise?, I wondered–in between deconstructing third-rate pundit critiques of libertarianism–when the media and pundit class would finally get around to attacking the actual soft underbelly of the libertarian movement: the incoherence concerning political legitimacy.

Perhaps this Michael Lind Salon piece can be considered a first shot across the bow. Lind is a third-rate huckster. But eventually, someone competent and without an obvious ax to grind, is going to take a skilled scalpel to carve the sucker up–and it’s going to get ugly.

This Will Wilkinson piece shows that is already getting ugly. Wilkinson writes:

THIS column of Michael Lind content reminds me that ideologues enjoy nothing so much as shamelessly misrepresenting the content and history of other, opposed ideologies.

Mr Lind wants to show, among other things, that libertarians are enemies of democracy. There are in fact a non-trivial number of outspoken libertarian critics of democracy, some of whom Mr Lind names and criticises toward the end of his article. If he would have stuck to libertarians who actually are enemies of democracy(emphasis mine), he might have had an interesting article. Alas, Mr Lind apparently was not content to settle for anything less than a sweeping condemnation of the entire libertarian tradition…

Wilkinson accuses Lind of misrepresenting the libertarian tradition–which is true. But, of course, Wilkinson misrepresents it as well with his insistence that radicalism is some sort of modern deviation, a curiosity that Wilkinson encourages Lind to explore and sink his knives into. Writes Wilkinson:

Now, Mr Lind is not wrong to hassle Patri Friedman, Milton Friedman’s seasteading grandson, for his beef against democracy. I’ve done the same in the past. Contemporary libertarian hostility to democracy is an interesting question well worth taking up. But when it comes to the classical liberalism of Mises and Hayek, Mr Lind either doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he’s willing to shamelessly misrepresent their views about democracy, to practically invert them, in order to grind his anti-libertarian ax.

Libertarianism, of course, originates from a radical critique of the legitimacy of political authority–a critique rooted in class analysis. The modern deviation is actually Will Wilkinson trying to pass off the “classical liberal tradition” as the libertarian tradition. They are not the same. Simply compare Benjamin Tucker’s analysis of monopoly to Mises’ version. One is libertarian, the other liberal. One remains prescient, the other has long ceased to be relevant.

The problem, which at this point in time should be obvious to anyone with a brain, is that democracy does not resolve the problem of monopoly. Indeed, if one can demonstrate the existence of a ruling class in a democracy, then the chief argument for democracy, namely accountability, simply vanishes, and the libertarian critique is undeniable: in particular, the problem of monopoly within a socio-political system that has no accountability becomes paramount.

The idea of the “ruling class” is not just the province of radical propaganda. It has a rational choice demonstration. For example, in this previous post, The Calculus of Dissent, I discuss the Public Choice demonstration of a ruling class. Namely, if we treat government as a market governed by rules that ostensibly require no unanimity, then we can treat “redistribution” as a von Neumann–Morgenstern cooperative n-player game: players join together to form coalitions, with the “solutions” being symmetric payoffs among the smallest effective coalitions.

This gives us an empirical test: economic rent transfers should be on the same order as the competitive outlays(lobbying outlays) for such economic rent. If they are not equal, then you either have: (i) highly inefficient government markets or (ii) a ruling class.

If the discrepancy is on the order of one order of magnitude difference, then perhaps a “inefficient market hypothesis” is plausible. If it’s two orders of magnitude or greater difference, then it can only be (ii), a ruling class.

There is no question that American democracy today is under the control of a ruling class. There isn’t much of a rational basis here for denial.

The paramount problem for Wilkinson, then, is this lack of accountability. How does one resolve the problem of the lack of democratic accountability that certainly extends to the largest military/intelligence complex expanse in the history of humankind?

There is no apparent resolution, other than writing something that comes dangerously close to sounding like “round up the dissidents” in the name of “democracy.”

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