Jerry Taylor, president of the left-libertarian Niskanen Center, has “abandoned the libertarian project.” In a provocative essay, he invites others to leave behind ideology, whatever that ideology might be, in favor of moderation. The piece succeeds as a challenge to libertarians and others across the political spectrum to stand vigilant against intellectual rigidity and factionalism. But in its espousal of moderation, it falls victim to an intellectual rigidity of its own.
When Facts Challenge Ideas
Taylor, a former vice president of the Cato Institute, centers his critique around the tendency of ideologues to conveniently take sides in debates that have nothing to do with their ideology per se but support their desired view on policy. He is clear that this ex ante bias when interpreting what should be objective empirical questions is rampant across all ideologies. The specifics of his piece, though, focus on libertarians, who “are highly motivated to dismiss arguments that might suggest an important need for government, or evidence that offers a cautionary warning about the negative consequences that might follow from a curtailment of governmental power.”
In one sense, his criticism is justified and important. Any economic or political philosophy must be robust enough to handle challenging facts on the ground. We’re all guilty at times of avoiding or selectively interpreting facts that we would rather not deal with. Taylor frames this tendency as “‘motivated cognition,’ which is the act of deciding what you want to believe and using your reasoning power, with all its might, to get you there.”
I call myself a libertarian because I believe markets and society generally function best without intervention. This does not mean that every single thing that happens in a free market or free society is good or just or could not theoretically be improved upon. Markets are not perfect, but markets are essential.
Whenever new calls erupt from the left to ban or regulate a product, as trivial as plastic straws or detergent pods, the libertarian blogosphere duly erupts with articles extolling the virtues of that product. But these aren’t libertarian arguments, but rather assertions that these specific products shouldn’t be banned.
Perhaps we would be better off in a world without plastic straws. Perhaps Uber puts a higher-than-optimal number of cars on the road. Even so, a government that can “correct” these problems is also a government that by construction will fall victim to rent seeking and bureaucracy and be capable of making all kinds of terrible decisions. I call myself a libertarian not because I like everything that happens in a free market, but because I believe that when attempting to fix things, the bad almost inevitably outweighs the good.
Taylor’s real break with libertarianism stems from the debate on climate change. I often share his bemusement. If the chief argument against heavy environmental regulation is that the science behind it is flawed or fraudulent, would proving the science is right mean we need prohibitive taxes and caps on emissions?
The fact that human actions have caused environmental risks doesn’t cause me to reject my view of economics and politics. Rather, I’m concerned about how governments would implement sweeping regulations, what the benefits would be, and what kind of power the resulting regulatory apparatus would have. Taylor doesn’t seem to make this connection, though many who haven’t “abandoned the libertarian project” don’t seem to either.
To Taylor, the existence of facts that challenge ideologies behooves us all to “embrace moderation.” Moderation, in turn, emphasizes compromise and “modest ambitions” for social change. This is a strange and disappointing conclusion from someone who previously cast himself as a maverick within an already-maverick movement.
My view of what society and its institutions ought to look like differs radically from the status quo. But I understand that in addition to great benefits, it would bring about problems that we don’t currently have. Taylor apparently feels that such a worldview is invalid if it doesn’t score 100 percent on the test. He thus falls victim to the same error as the ideologues he criticizes, who need their worldview to score 100 percent.
Taylor’s newfound ideological commitment to moderation runs deep. He goes so far as to write that “any set of beliefs, if they are coherent, are the wet clay of ideology.” His admonition to be open to new ideas and compromise is well-founded, but his purported respect for intellectual pluralism seems more motivated by blending ideas together than respecting different ones.
The underlying presumption seems to be that ideas are useless unless they are directly applied to policy making. I’ll concede that my broadly libertarian worldview is not likely to be enshrined in policy, at least during my lifetime. But rather than moderate my ideas, I think I can be of the most service by communicating them and giving people the chance to question their assumptions and think about alternatives to the left-right status quo.
Taylor sees a world in which people all over the ideological spectrum are rigid, factional, and unwilling to objectively evaluate facts on the ground. He’s correctly diagnosed the symptoms, but suggests the cause is the ideas rather than the temperament of the people who hold them. Society will only thrive as long as people are willing to passionately hold ideas that challenge the mainstream. It’s a pity that Taylor is no longer interested.