Answer: Before the internet, nobody realized how many of them there were.
Okay, that’s just a joke I made up to get your attention. But it serves to set the tone for today’s discussion, which involves a critique of libertarianism that is somewhat less than doctrinal. In fact, I want to make an ad hominem argument against it. Or more precisely, I want to criticize libertarianism indirectly, by making an observation about the kind of people who typically espouse libertarian doctrine.
In order to get at this, I’d like to introduce a new concept, or better yet, describe a group of people, whom I refer to as the “self-control aristocracy.”
The idea is very simple. Some people have more self-control than others. Let me give you an example. I love my wife dearly, but sometimes she freaks me out. Several months ago she got tired of paying for proprietary statistical analytics software and so decided to learn R, the open-source alternative. She signed up for some free online course, and then every day in the evening after work spent about an hour watching video tutorials of a guy explaining the subtleties of R programming. She did a bunch of problem sets, and by the end of the month had basically mastered it.
What I find freaky is the amount of self-control that it takes, after a long day at the office, to come home and spend an hour teaching yourself stats programming. I could never do something like that, because I simply don’t have that much self-control. And yet at the same time, I must have way more self-control than the average person. After all, I write books, which is a lot of work, and requires the ability to postpone gratification by several years.
So it’s probably fair to say that both my wife and I belong to the upper 10% of the population, when it comes to exercising self-control. This is the group that I refer to as the “self-control aristocracy.” Being a member of this club comes with enormous benefits in our society – as the famous marshmallow test suggested. This is because self-control has been shown to be a fairly stable personality trait, that generalizes across domains. (For example, neither my wife nor I have ever made anything less than the full payment on our credit cards, for over 25 years.) In fact, self-control probably confers more advantages in our society than does mere wealth – because it gives you advantages in so many different areas of life (in health, education, diet, finances, relationships, career development, staying out of jail, etc.).
Pretty much anyone who has completed a PhD is probably at the very high end of the scale, since staying in school requires considerable ability to defer gratification. People with PhDs in less structured disciplines, like the humanities, certainly are. (When graduate students in our department finish their qualifying exams, I always say to them “now go off to your basement apartment, and come back in two years with a book.” It’s like a joke that’s not really a joke, since this is basically what writing a philosophy doctoral thesis amounts do. Needless to say, not everyone is cut out for this sort of work. But no one fails to complete our program from lack of intelligence, only from lack of self-control.)
Because I am self-conscious about my membership in the self-control aristocracy, I am acutely aware of the fact that, when I think about questions of “individual liberty” in society, I come to it with a particular set of class interests. That is because I stand to benefit much more from an expansion of the space of individual liberty than the average person does – because I have greater self-control. So I recognize that, while a 24-hour beer store would be great for me, it would be a mixed blessing for others. Or I recognize that my enthusiasm for the new TFSA program is not universally shared – not because its benefits flow primarily to the wealthy, but because its benefits flow primarily to the self-control aristocracy.
What does this have to do with libertarianism? It is important because every academic proponent of libertarianism – understood loosely, as any doctrine that assigns individual liberty priority over other political values – is a member of the self-control aristocracy. As a result, they are advancing a political ideal that benefits themselves to a much greater extent than it benefits other people. In most cases, however, they do so naively, because they do not recognize themselves as members of an elite, socially-dominant group, that stands to benefit disproportionately. They think of liberty as something that creates an equal benefit for all. (Or, to the extent that it fails to benefit some people, it is entirely the fault of those people, for failing to exercise sufficient self-control.)
Libertarians who have some background in economics tend to be the worst in this regard. That is because the “rational agent” model, introduced as a methodological postulate by economists, is of an agent who exhibits absolutely perfect self-control. (Consider, for example, Milton Friedman’s permanent income hypothesis, which suggests that consumption should not be affected by things like how much money you have in the bank, or what your credit limit is. Would that it were so!)
As a result, when people with economics training think about policy questions, their baseline for analyzing any scenario is often one in which everyone has perfect self-control. From this perspective, the fact that welfare cheques are sent out monthly can seem mysterious. Why not roll it all into the tax system, and just send people one big cheque at the end of April? (Anyone who lives in the real world can easily answer this question. But to a certain sort of economist – one who has been drinking too deeply from the “rational actor” Kool-Aid – the answer can seem genuinely mysterious.)
Of course, no one is seriously talking about replacing welfare cheques with once-a-year payments. But people do talk about things like replacing defined benefit pension schemes with a contribution-based pensions or savings accounts. And here the economist’s bias (assuming perfect self-control as the baseline) can be seen to have seriously skewed the discussion.
Once you start paying attention to the unequal distribution of the capacity for self-control, there is a certain feature of libertarianism that immediately becomes apparent. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to libertarians criticizing one or another form of intrusive state power and demanding that it be rolled back, to create more room for individual freedom. And yet in all these years, I’ve never heard a libertarian demand this in a case where he or she did not also expect to benefit personally from such a roll-back.
For example, the kind of libertarians who defend gun ownership also tend to be the kind of people who own guns, or would like to own guns. A real, principled, libertarian would be one who defended gun ownership despite having no desire to own a gun, and perhaps even having an above-average chance of being the victim of a gun crime. That’s what it means to take liberty as a genuine value, rather than just using the language of liberty as rhetorical cover to advance one’s self-interest.
When it comes to the economy, libertarian arguments always have the same flavour. For example, some people don’t like public health insurance, they want the freedom to choose their own private insurance. And yet the kind of people who make this argument are always the kind of people who would actually go out and buy health insurance. And so on.
Another joke to wrap things up: I’m not sure where I heard this one, probably a New Yorker cartoon. It involves a rich society woman in Manhattan complaining about the poor. “I don’t see why they are always complaining about having no money,” she says, “I often go days at a time without spending any money at all.” At this point her husband interjects and says “My dear, that’s because your driver pays for everything.”
The moral of the story is that once you have a sufficient amount of money, it start to become invisible. You have so much of it that you lose the ability to see the world through the eyes of someone who lacks it. The same is true with respect to self-control. Members of the self-control aristocracy have so much of it that they take it for granted. As a result, they have great difficulty seeing the world through the eyes of someone who lacks it. And so they spend their days advocating political ideas that would, in many cases, only benefit members of their narrow social class, and yet this never even occurs to them.