The technocratic impulse

So now that I’ve agitated for rapprochement between libertarians and progressives, sort of, I’m gonna write about why it’s not happening.

One of the common threads in the latest instance of progressives recoiling in mouth-agape horror from even the most benign libertarian ideas is the firm conviction that people will, when left to their own devices, make the whole world worse.  As commenter Alrenous puts it:

[Progressives] really do think if they don’t busybody it up, they’ll die.

And in the last day or so I’ve come across a thundering herd of anecdotes that support the claim.

First, Ryan Avent complains about Kevin Drum complaining about Avent’s recent work The Gated City:

Drum writes:

It’s also unfortunate, I think, that his solution to restrictive building policies sounds an awful lot like the libertarian dogma that any kind of property restriction is a “taking” that should be fully compensated by the government. That’s pretty tough to swallow. There’s more to life than simply letting developers build anything and everything that pops into their minds.

Avent retorts:

Generally speaking, I’d say that this is a pretty good encapsulation of the problem we face. Using zoning rules and other measures to heavily restrict what can be done with a piece of private property does substantially reduce the value of that piece of private property; that’s not dogma, it’s common sense. Maybe Kevin thinks that the government is right to do this, and that the benefits of preventing private property owners from satisfying market demand are much greater than the costs imposed by the government regulation. It seems clear to me that this is often not the case, and Kevin doesn’t present any evidence to the contrary beyond an aversion to the idea that people might want to invest money in building things on their own land. How gauche!

(Emphasis added.)

Speaking of property rights, Alyssa Rosenberg has a post up about… erm, Brooke Shields starring in a movie about Kelo:

The post’s hard to excerpt, because it’s basically written in three single-paragraph chunks (two of which are updates), but the gist is that Rosenberg thinks that eminent domain is basically good but in need of reform to prevent regulatory capture-style abuse.  Eminent domain, for those of you who didn’t click through that Wikipedia link, “is an action of the state to seize a citizen’s private property, expropriate property, or seize a citizen’s rights in property with due monetary compensation, but without the owner’s consent.”  That’s pretty meddlesome stuff.  Oh, sure, there are instances in which it seems justified — buying up vacant lots to build a new and sorely-needed hospital, say — but the underlying assumption is that government knows best how your property should be used, and if you’re not using it properly they reserve the right to kick you out at bayonet point and do it for you.

Finally, Austin Frakt gives us a post with a rage-inducing title:

[M]y life is not entirely my own to the extent (some) libertarians may think it is or ought to be. I am not the only one who cares about the consequences of my decisions. I am not the only one who suffers or enjoys what comes of them. I am not the only one who cares about whether I live or die. I am not the only one who matters.


I am human and therefore social. All or most of you are too. Consequently, your life is not entirely your own either. You are not a hermit. I will send the ambulance for you. Welcome to a society that does at least that. Yes, somebody has to pay for it. If you (we) reject a socialized payment mechanism in favor of a private or libertarian one, it may be you who gets the bill. Consider it the price of being human, social, and surrounded by people who care. You can’t have it both ways.

These days I write software on short-term contracts, which is about as close to hermit-like as I can get and still live in the middle of a big metro area.  Dr. Frakt’s quite right that my life is not entirely and exclusively my own — if nothing else, I’ve contracted for a particular software project, and I owe my client what I said I’d build them.  Even so, I don’t think anyone would object to the idea that while my life might not be entirely, 100% my own, I’m by far the majority stakeholder.  The question, however, is to what extent I’m responsible to the other stakeholders, and what measures they — or, in the case of the Ezra Klein article Frakt’s riffing off of, well-meaning government experts with the good of society as a whole firmly fixed in their minds — can force me to take to protect their interests.

The underlying principle here is that people, when left to their own devices, will often make poor decisions — and that those decisions are bad for society as a whole.  In more economic language: many (most?) bad individual decisions have enormous external costs.  This is why smoking pot or drinking raw milk or growing and selling orchids merits door-kicking puppy-shooting kitten-stomping SWAT raids: the alternative, of people making suboptimal decisions, is too terrible — too destructive to society — to tolerate.  Therefore, society needs well-informed technocrats in government to make sure that people make the right decisions — coercively, if necessary.

I suspect that progressives feel this way for the same reason most of us yell at TV shows and I write blog posts.  Progressives are, by and large, pretty clever people*. They see someone doing something wrong — or something suboptimal, or something that appears to be suboptimal from an outside perspective — and cringe the same way a horror-movie audience cringes when the scantily-clad blonde ventures off alone** to see what’s making all that noise in the haunted slaughterhouse.  They imagine all the awful consequences that could stem from that poor choice — and, when some of those consequences sometimes come to pass, they feel vindicated.  The impulse to protect the many from the foibles and imperfections of the few grows stronger, not least because some bad decisions really do come with massive external costs.  So they legislate, regulate, and otherwise meddle to fix things.

Libertarians contend that the opportunity costs of that regulation are usually higher than the external costs of unchecked human fallibility.


* Despite all evidence to the contrary, I think that people in general are, by and large, pretty clever.

** And unarmed


5 Responses to “The technocratic impulse”

  1. 1 Not Sure
    September 16, 2011 at 21:26

    “Progressives are, by and large, pretty clever people.”

    The local progressive free press newspaper recently printed a “Letters to the Editor” contribution claiming that repealing the “Bush Tax Cuts” would result in trillions of dollars of increased taxes collected from the rich.

    Could be clever. Or not- I’m on the fence here.

    • September 17, 2011 at 18:03

      Too bad you removed the footnote reference when you quoted that. As you have it, it looks like I’m making a special claim about progressives, rather than noting that a general claim about people also happens to apply to a subset of “people”.

      In any case, a population of tens of millions of progressives on this continent leaves plenty of room for such spectacular innumeracy (and the local-progressive-free-press editorial board probably selects for ideologically convenient innumeracy). Ordinarily I’d be willing to give the letter-writer a pass on the basis that most people really cannot think properly about large numbers, but anyone who pretends to be politically active ought to educate themselves enough to actually write the numbers down and count the zeros. There might be a spark of cleverness lurking in the deep recesses of that letter-writer’s psyche, but it’s probably been extinguished by the geyser of enthusiasm for a convenient argument.

  2. September 18, 2011 at 09:46

    Thanks for the shout-out. /bow.

    I am human and therefore social. All or most of you are too. Consequently, your life is not entirely your own either. You are not a hermit. I will send the ambulance for you.

    Sheer sophistry. All but the last sentence are invoking externalities on family members and close friends.
    Family represents a special obstacle for libertarians/anarchists because you can’t choose your blood relations. No solution seems good – either one has the right to break your parent’s heart by killing yourself with crack, or they have the right to stop you from taking a job they consider disreputable. Of course none of this is a problem for reasonable people – but disputes are usually caused in the first place by someone being unreasonable.

    My response to the last sentence is; “Well, don’t.” Frakt thinks he can impose obligations on me by doing me a favour. If that were so, I should be able to impose obligations on him, such as the obligation to stop imposing obligations. Talk about externalities…

    The sophist technique here is to talk as if two things that feel the same are the same, and hope that since nobody feels the bump over the weld, nobody thinks to question the logic of the weld. The only question is whether Frakt is the villain or himself a victim.

    I can most certainly have it both ways when I reject this false equivalence.

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