February 7, 2012 columns

How Absolute is Libertarian Skepticism?

Powell argues that libertarian skepticism does not lead to anarchism.

In a recent blog post, I argued that the tech community should have learned a libertarian lesson from their experience with SOPA. In short, given that SOPA happened to be a law they possessed the technical knowledge to evaluate and given that their evaluation exposed it as downright awful, they ought to become more skeptical about laws they don’t have the technical knowledge to evaluate in the same way.

Over at Rust Belt Philosophy, Eli Horowitz disagreed. His critique of my libertarian skepticism raised issues worth exploring at greater length here. He makes three general claims. First, that the skepticism I endorse leads not to libertarianism but to anarchism. Second, that merely pointing to the badness of SOPA does not establish that other laws are like SOPA. Third, that my skepticism is inconsistent because I don’t apply it equally to state-based and market-based solutions.

To keep this from running excessively long, I’ll deal with each in a separate post over the next few days. Today, I want to deal with Horowitz’s first objection, which seems to stem from a misunderstanding of what I’m talking about when I saying “skepticism.”

What I do not mean is something like philosophical skepticism, the view that we can never have knowledge of anything. When I say we should be skeptical about claims by legislators that their proposed legislation will fix significant problems and do so with benefits outweighing costs, I do not mean that we must reject all laws whose workings we cannot fully evaluate.

Instead, I mean only that we should be skeptical. We shouldn’t take claims at face value. If I am skeptical about your claim that you ran a five minute mile over the weekend, I’m not impossible to convince. Rather, I need convincing.

So we need not see libertarian skepticism as insurmountable and thus a straight line to anarchism. If a law is more narrowly tailored, if it is simpler, if it demands less interpretation by its enforcers, and so on, then the law may move closer to clearing the skepticism hurdle. I’ll expand this point more in my next post.

All of us are to some degree skeptical about proposed laws. We all have some point at which the claims of a bill’s proponents are so facially absurd to make us balk. All I argued is that many people should be more skeptical than they already are.

Nor is it the case, as Horowitz argues, that my skepticism, if it is truly libertarian, will leave me in the difficult position of counseling rejection of “good” laws, too. Horowitz writes that my “argument cannot really try to say that our skepticism should be based merely on a history of bad laws, because that same reasoning would recommend credulity given a history of good laws.” He believes that the only way I can avoid this problem is to “admit that we have the ability to rationally analyze laws even without being experts on the subjects of those laws.”

It’s important to recognize that “good” as Horowitz uses it here is rather different from what we typically mean when we speak of good laws. In common usage, a “good” law would be one that ought to exist. Here, however, “good” means only the opposite of what called “bad” laws, so a “good” law would be one that (1) actually accomplishes what it claims it will while (2) not having hugely greater costs than benefits and (3) not directing those benefits exclusively to some special interest group.

It’s true that the skepticism I described would present no barrier to “good” laws of that sort. But this doesn’t put me in much of a bind as a libertarian. For I have other reasons for rejecting some of even the “good” laws, ones drawing on moral philosophy, the limits of political obligation, and the basic rights of human beings. Libertarians are skeptics, but skepticism is not the whole of libertarianism.

I might also respond by pointing out that I never argued that we can’t “rationally analyze laws even without being experts on the subjects of those laws.” Instead, I claimed only that recognizing our ignorance “forces us to either accept at face value what our legislators tell us or to adopt a general attitude of skepticism.” And, as I explained above, an attitude of skepticism is not the same as a wholesale rejection of all new  proposals.

The simple fact is that any of us can get a lot closer to having the expertise to fully evaluate any given new law. We can read thorough analyses of it. We can carefully study the views of people who understand it. If we do enough of this, we may diminish our ignorance enough that we feel our skeptical demands have been met.

But it is also a simple fact that most of us don’t do this. We may lack the time for such an endeavor (quite a lot of laws get proposed every day, after all). Or we may just not be interested in studying policy. Regardless of their reasons, most people who advocate campaign finance reform have never bothered to read even a handful of articles from political science journals on the topic. Most people who eagerly applaud Dodd-Frank probably couldn’t say exactly what a derivative is.

Horowitz assumes too strong a claim on my part. I need not deny even the possibility of rational analysis of laws outside our expertise in order to maintain my call for skepticism.

In part two, I’ll turn to whether one data point makes a trend and why government solutions in particular ought to make us skeptical.