Directionalism vs. Destinationism

I’m a “directional” libertarian. That means that if a proposed new policy or reform of an existing policy cuts spending or increases liberty, I’m for it, even if it isn’t a “real” libertarian policy.

Directionalism infuriates the “destinationists.” Destinationists have a notion of the ideal outcome, the perfect solution. Any policy that is not acceptable in the imaginary destinationist world is not acceptable in the present world of realized institutions.

For example, consider “public” education. In most states, we finance education through tax revenues, and state also retains the monopoly provision of education services. One policy, “vouchers,” uncouples financing and provision. Parents could send their children to state-operated schools, or privately-operated schools. And they can switch, a threat that eliminates the worst schools through competition.

Many destinationists hate vouchers. The state is still involved, in the collection of the funding through taxes and in licensing and permitting schools that qualify to receive vouchers. When I was running for governor in 2008, as a Libertarian in North Carolina, quite a few destinationist libertarians became so angry at me for supporting vouchers that they withdrew their support entirely.

Because “we” want the state to do nothing.

The Full Loaf

I agree with that bottom line, as far as it goes. But I want the state to the right kind of nothing.

Let me give an illustration. In 2009 I was living in the small city of Erlangen, in southern Germany. I didn’t speak German, and often found that I got in trouble simply because I didn’t understand what the culture expected of me. There are ways to behave, and not to behave. And I didn’t know which was which. Problems arose in settings where I thought I knew what to do.

Like in a grocery store.

In the southern U.S., if you see an elderly woman pushing an empty shopping cart back toward the store, and you are heading in to the store, you might take the cart so she won’t have to push it.

I saw just that situation one day, and thought I knew what to do. Except that in Europe, groceries have cart deposits. You put a Euro in a slot to unchain your cart. Return the cart, chain it back up, get your Euro back.

Consequently, when I tried to pantomime to an old woman one day in Erlangen that I was willing to do her the favor of pushing her cart back, her reaction surprised me: she scowled, and then cut hard left. But I had on more sensible shoes, so I cut off the angle.

She dodged right, but I was younger and faster and was able to grab her cart. Her reaction surprised me again: she started screaming. She had pretty good lungs for an old lady, but an underground parking garage has good acoustics.

The acoustics were good enough, in fact, that we immediately attracted the attention of a large, and apparently angry, German policeman. Understand: German policemen are not angry. You are a boring insect, unworthy of their interest.

This policeman, though, was very interested in me. And he was running. German policemen don’t run. This was not good. He started yelling at me while he was still ten meters away. I tried to explain that I didn’t speak German. He shouted (his English was excellent): “WHAT are you DOIN’?”  The little old lady rammed the cart into the rack, chained it, got her Euro, and held it high, a glistering gloat of victory over American imperialism.

The Explanation

I explained that I didn’t know about the deposit, because in the U.S. our grocery carts are free range. As I talked, and handed over my ID, I could see the cop was calming down. He had been to the U.S., and knew the carts were different. After a few minutes, half-smiling (German cops don’t smile; their faces might break), he said: "She's still watching, isn't she?" I glanced over; Oma was indeed peering at us from behind a post. I nodded.

And the policeman said, "Okay, then." Unexpectedly, he started yelling loudly, right up in my face, and thumping my chest with his finger: "I don’t think she speaks English. So if you just look scared and sorry, I think this will end our time together here today!”

The cop walked away. The woman gave me a decisive, scornful head snap, and marched back to her car. I went shopping, put the groceries in my backpack, and then went straight home to hide in my bathtub. Still, I was grateful to the policeman. He had done exactly the right kind of nothing.

The Right Kind of Nothing

Now, the cop could have done other kinds of nothing. For example, he could have sat with his partner in the car, and just looked around when they heard the old lady screaming. They could have said, “Oh, old lady getting robbed. You want to get some doughnuts, bro?” Nobody thinks that’s the right of kind of nothing.

Alternatively, he could have done something. He could have arrested me for trying to steal a euro from an old lady, which in a way I was trying to do. That would have been the dumb kind of something that many police have been doing more of lately.

Instead, he figured out the perfect immediate solution, and went on to look for other, more pressing problems.

That’s the argument, as I see it, for directionalism. We can often make progress by pressing for improvement, rather than holding out for perfection. Sometimes, just the right kind of nothing is good enough.

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Michael Munger

Michael Munger is Professor of Economics at Duke University and Senior Fellow of the American Institute for Economic Research. His degrees are from Davidson College, Washingon University in St. Louis, and Washington University.