Home > conservatism, liberalism, libertarians > Steal-cage death-match: Kochtopus Vs. Cato Edition

Steal-cage death-match: Kochtopus Vs. Cato Edition

I’ve been meaning to write about the Koch brothers take-over attempt of the Cato Institute since I first heard about the story (from Brad DeLong–here is a good summary). I once considered myself to be a libertarian (long long ago, in a galaxy far far away) so I feel as if I should have something to say. Sadly, I don’t really think I do. Nothing terribly interesting at any rate.

Still, its going to bug me until I vent a little bit, so here goes.

My feeling is that the modern libertarian movement (as it actually exists) in the US is a terrible force of evil, not just here but in the world as a whole (I’ll refrain from citing examples for now, but I may come back to the topic in the future). This is a tragedy, and not just because libertarians are a powerful political force. In fact, I would go so far as to say that an idealized libertarian movement would form the best of all possible opposition parties to the progressives… that sounds like I mean the whole political culture ought to be significantly rightward of its current center of gravity, but that is not what I mean, so let me explain.

As I see it, politics is an N-person bargaining problem (where N is some very large number), but the N-person bargaining problem doesn’t have a single (known) solution. Still, we can say something about the fairest possible outcome of the N-person problem–for example if everyone earns his or her shapley value this would be a notion of the “fairest” bargaining outcome. Suppose also that the overall solution of this bargaining problem only admits solutions with two main parties. You might then ask which two parties best balance long run growth and equity of its citizens. My contention is that “close enough” to this shapley value solution to the bargaining problem, the two parties which best optimize growth subject to equity concerns are the progressives and libertarians.

The idea is that in order to maximize growth, a society needs to be constantly changing and evolving. To me, this suggests the need for an agenda-setting party and a skeptic party to keep the agenda-setters honest.

If there is one thing that unites progressives it is the idea that collectively we can solve societies problems–although we are indifferent, generally, as to how and disagree mightily as to what. This means that progressives are a great agenda-setting party (at least, we are at our best). As a bonus, it is probably best that the agenda-setters are the party most interested in equity, since the market will generally produce inequities all on its lonesome, which provides a steady stream of “change” that needs doing.

Libertarians, meanwhile, are dedicated to (what I usually think of as a somewhat strange notion of) liberty. There is a bit of paranoia in their single-minded focus on less government and a frustrating lack of awareness of the liberty-destroying abilities of powerful individuals. Yet, overall, I see libertarians getting more things right than wrong. They would be bad agenda-setters because of their rather awful blind spots, but their careful reasoning and market-oriented thinking make them excellent skeptics (even in command-and-control economies, markets tend to pop up on their own).

This is all pretty weak praise (for one thing implementing a shapley-value solution is probably impossible with a voting mechanism, I think actual voting mechanisms will get you something in the Core, so my intuition here is in a practical sense useless). Still, I think it’s fair to say that, at their best, libertarians make our political discourse healthier. I would not make the same claim for conservatives, broadly.

Whatever its practical faults, Cato comes the closest of all the major political organizations on the right to that elusive ideal of what libertarian thought ought to look like. To the extent that its ideas do filter back into the rest of the republican party and change the bilateral debate with the democrats, we are all better off for it. But precisely because kind of libertarianism does not advance the goals of conservatism or the republican party will move Cato further from what they should be. Then again, this is a very communitarian argument, which no self-respecting libertarian should buy into (read that DeLong post to see how well that fact has kept the libertarians from making precisely this case).

On the merits, though, the Kochs win the SCDM: the Koch’s membership shares are their own property and the attempt by Ed Crane to prevent them from reaching majority control amounts to theft of this property. I have no problem with this, because I understand that ownership and markets are not enough to guarantee optimal outcomes, but I can practically hear the cognitive dissonance as millions of libertarian’s brains change gears as one and take the communitarian side against property and markets. Score this one for the Kochs, but I think we all lose.

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