Video 1 of 12 of the Libertarian Public Policy guide (Download MP3 Version)

Introduction 18:20

Miron’s “Consequential Libertarianism” holds that on a rigorous, broad understanding, the costs of restricting liberty outweigh the benefits.

Miron: Good morning, this is a course about Consequential Libertarianism. It’s a particular version of libertarianism that, like all versions, is used for small government. But it makes those arguments in a specific way that we will discuss in this course. This is the first of 12 lectures that form the videos for this course. Today’s lecture is an introduction and an overview. We’re going to review some general ideas, discuss the scope of the course, talk about the main topics that we’ll cover, and give some general background.

To give you an outline of what we’re going to cover today, I’ll first try to explain consequential libertarianism. It consists of two main pieces. One piece is a method an approach, a perspective for thinking about different government policies and which ones are useful and which ones are not. And the second piece is a set of claims about what that methodology, what that approach yields in terms of which government policies are actually desirable.

I’ll next turn to give you some examples of policies that consequential libertarianism or libertarianism generally opposes. I won’t have yet explained why we oppose those, but it’s useful to give a sense of exactly what libertarianism leads to and what this approach will claim, so that you have a clear sense of where the discussion is going.

Then I briefly want to discuss a comparison of consequential libertarianism and libertarianism generally with other -isms and talk about one key feature of the libertarian perspective, which is its consistency across a broad range of policies and perspectives.

Then we’ll do a little bit of overview of what the lectures are going to cover and sum it up for this first video.

In rough terms, very rough terms, we can think about two main flavors of libertarianism, at least two main ways that people talk about libertarianism and try to justify its policy conclusion. One is useful to call rights-based libertarianism, and the alternative that I’m going to be discussing today is consequential libertarianism.

Rights-based libertarianism are used essentially that individuals have natural rights and their policies should not infringe those rights. But then it also notes that virtually all policies do infringe rights, and that leads to the conclusion that essentially all policies, or the vast majority of policies most economies have, are unacceptable according to the rights-based approach to libertarianism.

The alternative perspective that I’m going to discuss, consequential libertarianism, takes a different perspective, even though it leads to the same conclusions. It says if you’re thinking about particular interventions, we should ask what is the problem that this intervention, this policy is supposed to fix? You don’t know what you’re aiming at. You’re rarely going to hit your target. It’s important to be clear about what the objectives of policy are so you can think about whether it has obtained those objectives and at what cost. You should always ask, vis-à-vis any proposed intervention, is the problem it’s addressing large or small because any policy, of course, is going to have some cost, possibly some unintended side effects. So if the problem is small in the first place, the presumption is naturally going to be that intervention might not be such a great idea. We should always ask whether private mechanisms, markets, and other private responses to issues in society or the economy can ameliorate the problem, or whether they might evolve over time, even if those mechanisms are not yet working. We should ask if policy is going to intervene and exactly how. There’s a broad range of ways you could go after any particular alleged problem. If you think that private drug use is a problem, you could think about prohibition, you could think about a sin tax, you could think about public media campaigns, and so on. Those might have very different combinations of pros and cons. So it’s useful to discuss the possible kinds of intervention and think about which one will do the most benefit and the least harm.

We should of course always ask, in the consequentialist perspective, whether the intervention is going to reduce the problem in question. It’s one thing to say, “If we do this, it will fix something.” It’s another thing to know that doing that intervention is actually going to fix something. Does raising the minimum legal drinking age from 18 to 21 actually reduce traffic fatalities for 18- to 20-year-olds? Or does something happen, such as those age ranges getting alcohol anyway, so that this policy doesn’t accomplish its stated goal? So that’s an important question to ask.

We need to look at then what the costs are of the interventions – even if there clearly is a problem, even if it has a substantial magnitude, even if there’s a policy that looks as though it ought to work, and even if there’s some evidence it accomplishes its stated objectives. It may do so at an unacceptable cost, most direct cost for expenditure and things like that but also because of unintended consequences. So without knowing about those, without thinking carefully about what sorts of effects might happen beyond the intended effects, you can’t do a full evaluation of policy.

So consequential libertarianism suggests that we ask all these questions, we have a thorough understanding of the problem and the possible policies and the range of effects that the policies might have. And then it says we should intervene if, but only if, the consequences from intervention seem clearly better than those from non-intervention from laissez-faire, from just doing nothing. Similarly, if you’re choosing between policy A and B, you should choose A over B if the consequences seem better overall from one approach versus another.

With that description, it should be fairly obvious that consequential libertarianism is just cost-benefit analysis really by another name or economics by another name, with one slight additional thing that needs to be said. I’m suggesting we take a very broad view of the possible costs and benefits. If a particular policy intervention changes social norms, if it affects the degree to which people respect the law, if it affects the degree to which people assume personal responsibility for their own actions and things like that, these are all potential costs. There could also be intangible, hard-to-measure benefits from certain policies. That’s also fair. But with that understanding, they were taking a broad view of all the possible consequences. Consequential libertarianism and cost-benefit are essentially the same thing.

Now as you know, the cost-benefit approach doesn’t lead everyone to the same conclusions. You can have lots of people who say, “Oh yeah, we all agree. We’re using this standard approach, the standard. But we disagree about what the effects will be of intervening or not. So we might disagree about whether the policy is desirable or not.” Therefore, different assessments of the facts or the likely facts from intervention are certainly an issue in many cases. And even if everyone agreed on what the effects will be, there can be different weights that different people put on those different consequences. Classic example is that drug prohibition will probably tend to reduce drug use, at least somewhat. But some people might argue that’s a bad consequence of prohibition because we’re preventing people from choosing to use drugs who wish to do so, and other people will argue that that’s a good thing about prohibition, i.e. it prevents drug use because drug use is something the society should try to oppose and try to reduce. Without complete agreement about the values and the weightings, how we add up all these different costs and benefits, you can of course get huge disagreement from this cost-benefit, from this consequentialist approach.

So you might think that the consequentialist perspective doesn’t have any real bite. It sounds like it’s a plea to be careful, to be thorough, to consider the whole problem, and yet it could lead you to a huge range of different possibilities with respect to any specific intervention.

The second part of the consequentialist perspective is to make a factual claim, to argue that if we look at the details, if we go through a huge range of policies and ask what their actual effects are, what their costs are, what kind of unintended consequences they have, we will come to the conclusion that for reasonable assessments of the factual effects of the actual impact of various policies, including unintended consequences, and for any reasonable set of values about which effects are desirable and which effects are not, we will very, very frequently realize that smaller government is better than larger government. Sometimes almost zero government is better than the kinds of government we have, or even than smaller government. How small? I would argue that this perspective suggests removing almost everything that’s been adopted since the ‘90s, and I mean the 1790s. So my claim is a very, very strong one, that as a practical matter, as an empirical matter, if we look at the actual effects and we talk about people’s actual values and get them to say explicitly what they do care and do not care about or what they think are good and bad effects, they would agree that a huge fraction of government that’s been erected since the start of the republic is in fact not particularly productive, and indeed, in many cases, strongly counterproductive and strongly undesirable. What the course is going to do is to try to get some meat, get some evidence to back up these claims by going through details of a big range of various government policies.

Let me give you some examples to make that more concrete. Public schools: Libertarians almost universally would oppose having the government own and operate schools, especially schools that people are compelled to attend. They might not 100 percent oppose any and all government support for education. But they would certainly suggest that that also should be extremely limited relative to where it is now. So that’s a radical difference from current policy.

Libertarians would oppose gun control laws, mostly, certainly oppose any strong prohibitions or registration policies or things like that, not necessarily oppose very, very mild things such as a minimum purchase age of 18 for a gun or something like that. But relative to current policy, again, these are radical reductions.

Libertarians oppose Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlements. They believe that those could generate far more cost than benefit. Again, I guess this is clearly a radical change relative to current policy because a huge fraction of expenditure in modern economies is for health and retirement savings. 

Libertarians would oppose government-mandated affirmative action. Note that I said government-mandated affirmative action. Libertarians would take no stand against private actions toward affirmative action undertaken by schools, by businesses, or whatever. But the government should never be imposing such policies.

Just to name a few more, to give the flavor, libertarians oppose government protections for unions. They oppose prohibitions on insider trading. They don’t see the argument that that makes anyone better off. They oppose government impose high-stakes testing on high school students, elementary school students, and so on, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, opposed drug prohibition, opposed government restrictions on immigration. They would like to open the borders or at least get much, much closer to open borders than we are now. They oppose anti-trust policy, campaign finance regulation, and much, much, much more. So the whole range of federal policies in particular but also a huge range of state and local policies, libertarians would be against, not necessarily to the same degree. There’s certainly scope in the consequentialist view to say some policies are really awful, some policies are just not such a good idea, and some policies maybe are sort of innocuous, at least in and of themselves. But the entire range of most of what’s been erected since the 1790s is what I’m going to be talking about and targeting over these videos.

Let me give one perspective on all of this that will come up throughout the discussion by comparing the consequential libertarian approach and libertarianism, however described, to other -isms, to other perspectives on government policy. So one thing libertarianism is not is anarchism. Libertarians absolutely support some kinds of government. We’ll talk about the specifics as we go through, but roughly, it means national defense, some criminal justice and contract enforcement, property rights enforcement. We absolutely think those are useful and beneficial. And that’s very different than saying we’re for zero government. That’s typically a slander against libertarians to say that we want a world with no government at all. There’s a very important difference between libertarianism and anarchism – even though relative to the current size of government, it might seem to many people as though those things are pretty close. But there is definitely a stopping point for libertarians as we roll back government with respect to some specific things government usefully does.

Another useful perspective is between libertarianism and liberalism. I mean modern liberalism, not classical liberalism. Classical liberalism is very close in many ways to modern libertarianism. By liberalism, I mean the kind of attitudes you get from the modern Democratic Party in the United States right now. Libertarians agree with liberals on some issues, very roughly on social issues, certainly not in every detail or completely but to some moderate degree. And if we believe the rhetoric of modern liberals, you would tend to think libertarians agree with liberals on foreign policy, although many liberals seem to have endorsed a great deal of foreign policy intervention in recent years. But libertarians and liberals disagree quite dramatically, especially on economic interventions on income redistribution, on regulation, and things like that.

In contrast, libertarians share some common policy perspectives with conservatives, mainly on economic issues, against minimum wages, against runaway entitlements, against silly, excessive regulation, complicated tax system. Again, modern conservatives haven’t been so great at sticking to what you would think would be the conservative principles and often have wandered off even the conservative train in order to endorse all sorts of feel-good stuff that they think will get them elected. But in rough terms, there is some overlap and some sympathy between libertarians and conservatives on economic issues but not social and foreign policy issues, where libertarians are very anti-intervention in foreign policy matters and very laissez-faire and hand-off in social policy issues, and modern conservatives are clearly not.

A crucial characteristic that I hope you will see through all of these lectures is that libertarianism is consistent, at least in certain ways. We apply our lens, our skepticism, our demand that policies actually be doing something clearly beneficial if they’re going to interfere with anyone’s freedom. We apply that to all policies, whether they are social policies, foreign policies, economic policies. We apply that, whether the policy proposals are coming from one part to the other. And we think of that as a crucial benefit. Now there is a line you’ve probably heard that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. So one could ask why is consistency a good thing. I will hope to be able to explain that this consistency allows you to see that the libertarian perspective is not especially self-interest. It is defending things which many libertarians themselves are not particularly sympathetic to. Many libertarians don’t use drugs and have no interest in and would like that a fewer people use drugs. But they don’t think it’s the government’s place to tell people whether they should or should not use drugs. So in contrast to the impression one gets from other -isms, where the perspective of the people pushing them is to protect their own view, to push their view, libertarians consistently say, “Let people make their choices. Let people’s views about what’s good for them be the dominant factor in deciding policies.”

With that general overview, let me tell you a little bit about the lectures. Mainly, we’re going to consider 10 major policy areas in 10 separate lectures. And then the last, 11th, we’ll do some miscellaneous things that didn’t quite fit in other places and that help illustrate or reinforce some specific ideas. In each of those areas, I will apply the consequentialist methodology to talk about whether a particular kind of policy is likely to generate benefits greater than costs, whether it’s likely to pass this consequentialist test.

The main topics, the subject of these 10 lectures, will be vice, education, marriage, discrimination, capitalism, health, redistribution, macroeconomics, and national defense, and then, as I mentioned, some other things.

To wrap up for today, this course aims to explain and defend the consequential case for small, really small but not zero, government. The course is especially focused on explaining as opposed to defending. That’s not because I don’t believe what I’m going to tell you; I certainly do quite ardently. But I have the confidence that if I could explain it well, a lot of you will end up being persuaded, or at least intrigued or at least think about it going forward and take it seriously, and will have some effect on how you think about it. And of course, I think it’s more libertarian to respect other people’s perspectives and their right to make their own decisions and their own evaluations. So I will explain, as well as I possibly can, and hope that that ends up persuading many of you who listen.

The course does not, as you can guess, examine every issue. There are of course zillions and zillions of policies. We couldn’t conceivably talk about them all. But I hope by seeing it applied enough times, it gives you the perspective that you can use in other settings for any policy that comes up. If you hear that the state of Massachusetts wants to ban tattoo parlors, you’ll have a ready way to think about whether that makes sense, whether that’s useful, is it something libertarians should really hate or something libertarians should only think as mildly stupid, and so on and so forth.

I hope you enjoy the lectures. I look forward to seeing you again soon, and thank you for listening.