Liberty is the Golden Rule

Why I’m Libertarian is a new Tumblr blog (via Pretense of Knowledge and EconLog blogs) where folks declare why they are libertarian. Great idea.

Here’s why I’m libertarian: Because I believe in The Golden Rule. I believe that’s the true source of liberty.

Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.

The day we talked about The Golden Rule in church when I was a kid was a clarifying moment. I remember thinking, man, that makes a lot of sense. What a fabulously easy way to test your actions. Would I want others to do that to me? If the answer is no, or even a maybe not, don’t do it.

Lots of libertarians say they are libertarian because of things like ‘limited government’, ‘individual rights’, ‘don’t believe in war’…and so forth.

But, for me the Golden Rule is why all of those things are important.

Update: In another coincidence on this blog, in this week’s episode of EconTalk, Russ Roberts interviews Nassim Taleb about an essay he wrote called, Skin the Game. He also discusses the source of the Golden Rule.

I personally believe that the Golden Rule is a social norm that is responsible for the advances in the standards of living humans have experienced over the last several hundred years. I haven’t finished listening to the EconTalk podcast yet, but I’m hoping Taleb will agree with me.

 

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Give the Governor Harumph!

In this week’s EconTalk podcast, guest Glenn Reynolds says well something I think about often:

 …it’s always funny to me that the people who go on the most about sustainability in other areas seem the least concerned about sustainability when it comes to things like government and spending.

Here he sums why government grows:

…there is a scene in it [the movie Blazing Saddles]–which I regard as one of the most powerful metaphors for our political situation every produced–and it’s the one where Mel Brooks, playing Governor Le Petomane, has all his cronies around a big conference table and he says: Gentlemen, we’ve got to protect our phony-baloney jobs. And the problem with making the government smaller is it threatens a lot of people’s phony-baloney jobs.

LOL

This immediately follows his plea to protect their phoney-baloney jobs:

Here Reynolds mentions what motivates politicians, something that should get more airtime:

I think it’s a mistake that a lot of economists make–not just economists but a lot of other critics of government–to think that the only question is just sort of money. I think the other issue that people guard almost as vigorously, and maybe more vigorously, is the non-monetary economy of self-importance.

Which I think for politicians is really what drives them more than anything else. I think the sense of being a big man.

It’s funny to me that it is assumed by default that CEOs are motivated by greed, but this motivation of a politician goes past society nearly undetected. Rather, politicians are often considered to be ‘serving the people’, when all they’re doing is spending other people’s money and getting their kicks out of being loved and a big shot.

Reynolds offers a nice rebuttal to a previous guest, Louis Michael Seidman’s, position that we shouldn’t be beholden to the Constitution.

If you are the President, if you are a member of Congress, if you are a TSA agent, the only reason why somebody should listen to what you say instead of horse-whipping you out of town for your impertinence is because you exercise power via the Constitution. If the Constitution doesn’t count, you don’t have any legitimate power.  …if we are going to start ignoring the Constitution, I’m fine with that; the first part I’m going to start ignoring is I have to do whatever they say.

Though, in Seidman’s defense, I think Russ and Reynolds are missing something in Seidman’s argument (even though they kind of mention it in the podcast, but don’t connect the dot back to Seidman’s argument). I hear Seidman basically saying that what ‘we’ consider the Constitution has evolved over time, without necessarily being updated through the official amendment process. I believe this is a fundamental point made by libertarian-minded folks like F.A. Hayek. Law isn’t the set of rules written on paper. That’s legislation. Law is the set of norms and customs by which people get along with one another. When legislation lines up with the customs, it looks like we are following the written rules (like stopping at red lights). But, when legislation doesn’t line up with custom, we generally ignore them (like driving 5 miles over the speed limit).

One last tidbit. Here’s Reynolds’ idea to help slow the growth of government (emphasis added — incentives matter):

…create a third house of Congress, which I call a House of Repeal, in which people run for election in which their only power is to repeal laws. And if that one house repeals a law, that law is repealed. And when you go before the voters every two or four years or whatever term you choose for it, the only thing you’ve got to run on is which laws you struck down. Because right now, one reason why we’ve got growth of big government is there is literally nobody in the government with an institutional incentive to shrink government. Courts can strike down laws as unconstitutional, and they do sometimes, but it doesn’t do anything for them institutionally to do so. The other two branches are all about making government bigger. And everybody runs for election and tells voters what they are going to do for them; it would be nice if we could have somebody run for election and tell voters what they are going to undo for them.

What’s a libertarian?

In this post at Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux points us to a 1 and a half minute long video of himself describing why he is a Libertarian.

He cites two reasons:

1) The way he was raised — don’t be envious, make no excuses, be responsible for yourself.

2) His exposure to economics — Supply and demand curves showed him how the government imposition of price ceilings on oil caused him to have to wait in long lines at gas stations in the 70s.

If these two things led naturally to libertarianism, like Boudreaux indicates in the video, I would expect there to be many more libertarians out there.  I would especially expect there to be more libertarian economists.

A self-described “left-of-center” commenter made the observation that he could agree with almost everything Don said in the video, but not be libertarian.

I tend to agree with this commenter.  Maybe Don is trying to get the point across that libertarians aren’t extremist hermits.  That most anyone right of “left of center” have a great deal in common with libertarians.  Perhaps, even if they were to take a blind political challenge that many would fall out as libertarians — and they don’t now because of branding (libertarianism isn’t cool) or misunderstanding (libertarianism doesn’t mean an ‘on your own society’).

But, I do think that Don leaves out a key element of what causes one to appreciate liberty.  I think there are many good reasons for liberty.  It seems morally right.  It also generally results in better outcomes than other things.

But, the key difference I see in libertarians and others is when they feel the use of force is warranted.

Libertarians (though they come in many flavors) tend to think the use of force is warranted only to prevent someone from infringing on the liberty of others.

libertarians are made, not born

Of the very limited sample size of libertarians that I know, it seems all held some other form of ideology in the past and came to a libertarian position by way of reason.

If reason is the primary path to libertarianism, that might explain its relative obscurity (not meant to be funny).

For example, other ideologies seem to be passed down from generation to generation as effectively as religion and are intimately linked with other human associations and affinities like religion, movie stardom, status signaling (“I’m for the poor” as if others aren’t), unions and such.

I think other political ideologies are similar to religions because many that hold those ideologies seem to accept whatever it is their ideology stands for without questioning whether it actually works or not.

Libertarians have none of that going for them.

Perhaps this is what Bryan Caplan meant in this blog post on EconLog, where he ranks libertarian economists as the most productive folks to have conversations with.  Libertarian non-economists ranked third.

I think there’s a reason for this.  Of all the folks I have discussions with, libertarians are the most likely to consider that they might be wrong and are open exploring the rationale of the opposing argument for its merits or demerits.  Discussions with these types of folks can be extremely productive.

I’ve also noticed libertarians aren’t as married to their biases.  They don’t always stop when they find the answer they’re looking for.  They seem to be good at continuing to pick at something until they uncover the root-cause.

Of course, I could be wrong.

Good Reason to be libertarian

Thomas Sowell hits on a very good reason to be libertarian in his column, “Enough Money”.

Once you buy the argument that some segment of the citizenry should lose their rights, just because they are envied or resented, you are putting your own rights in jeopardy– quite aside from undermining any moral basis for respecting anybody’s rights. You are opening the floodgates to arbitrary power. And once you open the floodgates, you can’t tell the water where to go.