The Humble Case for Liberty

The virtue of humility is found in recognizing our limits — and that humility ought to make fans of limited government.

I could be wrong about pretty much anything. What I don’t know so outweighs what I do that my actual knowledge appears as little more than a small raft on an ocean of ignorance.

I suffer no shame admitting this unflattering fact, not only because there’s never any shame in acknowledging the truth, but also because everyone else is in the same boat. Our ignorance — what we don’t know — always and enormously outweighs our knowledge. It’s true of even the smartest and most educated.

Recognizing that fact ought to humble us. And that humility, informed by a realistic picture of how government operates, ought to make us libertarians. Libertarianism is a philosophy of humility. It’s one that takes us as we are and grants us the freedom to make as much of ourselves as we can. And it’s a philosophy that understands just how damaging human failings can be when coupled with the coercive force of government. Libertarianism limits rulers because it recognizes that rulers are just ordinary people who exercise extraordinary power — and that the harm that power can inflict more often than not outweighs any good it might achieve. Libertarianism rests on humility and refuses to tolerate the hubris of those who would consider themselves higher and mightier than others.

Let’s start by looking at what it means to have humility in our claims to knowledge. Each of us certainly seems to know quite a lot, from what we ate this morning to the number of moons circling Mars. We know that George Washington was the first president of the United States of America, that Boris Yeltsin was the first president of the Russian Federation, and that driving while drunk is a bad idea.

But if we look to the whole of intellectual history, we see one overturned conviction after another. What was scientific truth three hundred years ago is balderdash today. Our brightest once believed that you could understand a person’s mind and character by studying the bumps on his or her head. (It was given the scientific sounding name of “phrenology.”) The wise and the great were once certain that the Earth sat at the center of the universe.

It’s not just science that can’t seem to finally and forever get it right. Very smart people have argued about deep philosophical problems for as long as there have been very smart people. Two and a half millennia ago, Plato thought he’d figured out what justice is. Most philosophers since have disagreed — but none have offered an alternative that wasn’t itself open to strong counter-argument.

We ought to always be skeptical of claims to absolute knowledge. If you believe a philosophical point is settled, you’re almost certainly wrong. If you believe science today understands a topic fully, you’re likely to find in just a few years that it didn’t. Furthermore, if we’re properly skeptical about humanity’s knowledge in general, we ought to be even more skeptical about proclamations of certainty from individual members of our species.

But all of that doesn’t stop many of us from often feeling like there’s just no way we could be wrong.

It was in college that I first began to understand how common such intellectual hubris is. I was baffled by how broadly many of my professors saw their own expertise. A PhD in early twentieth-century American comedic film felt qualified to critique the cutting edge of physics research and to lecture his students on which types of cancer ought to get the most funding. It happens outside the university, too, especially in politics. How many Americans look at the fantastic complexity of our health care delivery system and say, “Oh, I know how to fix that”? How many voters without even basic knowledge of economics think it’s clear which candidate’s proposals will promote prosperity? It takes some effort to admit that we could be wrong about the things we think we have good reason to believe. But at the very least, it ought to be easier to recognize when we clearly know nothing about a topic.

Furthermore, many of us aren’t adequately skeptical about the move from knowledge of facts to knowledge of values. Take nutritionists, for example. They believe they know which foods are most healthy, that is, which give us the most nutrients with the least harmful other stuff. If we consume substance X, we can expect result Y. (Of course, even that knowledge has changed dramatically in recent years.) But notice this “is” doesn’t get us to an “ought.” What’s healthy is a different question entirely from what I ought to eat.

I can recognize that fried potatoes aren’t as healthy as steamed broccoli while still being right that I ought to eat French fries for dinner tonight. That’s because what I ought to eat doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as what’s healthiest for me. “Ought” can include other values, too, such as the pleasure I’ll get, the varying prices of the alternatives, and so on. Nutrition speaks to the one value (what’s healthy), but it has nothing to say about the rest.

Proper skepticism applies to both others and to us. I should be skeptical about your claims of absolute certainty, and I should likewise be skeptical about the veracity of my own. Such skepticism shouldn’t make us abandon all claims to knowledge, of course. But it should lead us to adopt an attitude of humility. Knowing others face the same difficulties in ascertaining truth, we should expect humility from them, as well.

This is where humility urges us in the direction of libertarianism. If we embrace legitimate skepticism about our knowledge of both truth and values, then we should hesitate before compelling people who may disagree with us to live by our convictions. We should hesitate, in other words, before reaching for a club or calling on the police to use their nightsticks.

Why? Any policy may turn out to be bad or ineffective, but can’t we always go back and fix it? And what of the gains to be had in trying to make the world better by coercing others, either by our own force, or via state action, even if it means occasionally making things worse for some people? If we’re pretty sure our values are correct and our facts support them, then what’s the harm in using politics to make everyone else comply?

To show what’s wrong with that line of thinking, it may help to think about the purpose of life. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed the only thing desired for its own sake is the achievement of eudaimonia — usually translated as “happiness” or “flourishing.”

Aristotle believed that eudaimonia isn’t something found in discrete moments of pleasure or pain (what we often mean when we say, “I’m happy”) but instead is found only in an assessment of a life taken as a whole. At the end of a life, we look back and ask, “Was it good?” Everything we are, every reason we have for being, is bound up in being able to answer “yes” when our time comes.

Aristotle had his own idea of the best life, the life that exhibited eudaimonia to the highest degree. He thought it meant living in accord with that which is uniquely human: our capacity to reason — and from this he concluded that the highest and best life was one spent in contemplation. Perhaps it is not surprising that one of the world’s greatest philosophers thought happiness flowed from a life of philosophy.

For Aristotle, of course, it did. But just as we need to recognize the limits of our knowledge about the external world, we must also be humble in our prescriptions of the recipe for the good life. Happiness for me may not be the same thing as happiness for you. There is no generic “human being” who is happy, but billions of very diverse human beings. Happiness may be found in contemplation, but it can also come through raising children, experiencing great art, building a successful business, becoming an athlete, or helping those less fortunate. And if the good life for each individual is bound up in the specific features of their lives, so too are the paths to achieving it. How I go about making my life good can vary from the way you do — not just in the goals we each aim at but also in the ways we assure our aim is true.

While Aristotle may have gotten some of the details wrong, I think he was right about the broad picture. Most people want to live good, satisfying lives — and a good life is, we might say, a life lived in pursuit of the good life. As the American founders put it in the Declaration of Independence, it’s “the pursuit of happiness.” Our various pursuits may take different paths, depending on our circumstances, interests, and values. It’s the pursuit that matters.

Respecting each other — recognizing each other’s dignity as self-directing (what the philosophers call “autonomous”) beings — means respecting different forms of that quest. It means not actively inhibiting each other in our pursuits of the good — and recognizing the right each of us has to choose his or her own path.

I’ve come to the conclusion that that necessarily entails a state that is radically limited, certainly compared to the actual states we see around the world. To understand why, we need to have a realistic view of how governments operate.

In their private lives, people often act poorly, or pursue their own selfish interests, even when it means harming others. Sometimes they hurt other people just for the thrill of it. Pickpockets steal from strangers, scam artists prey on the elderly. Many people, when they think about government, assume that those undesirable traits vanish when someone enters public office. Politicians abandon selfishness and become motivated only by a desire to promote the public good.

That’s silly, of course. People remain themselves, even when given fancy titles and power over the lives of others. Being a politician or a bureaucrat doesn’t automatically make one better informed — or better — than the rest of us. There is a group of thinkers who take the realistic approach to understanding government, that people don’t change their natures when they enter government; they just change the institutional constraints they face, because they have powers that the rest of us lack. Their school of thought is known as “public choice.”

Public choice teaches us that politicians and state officials use the knowledge they have available to make the best decisions they can, with “best” being a product of their own judgment and also of their own interests. Those interests could, of course, include money and fame, but more often mean simply staying in power.

The result is that politics frequently means helping the most vocal — the people most visible to politicians — and doing so at the expense of everyone else. That’s why the state enacts and maintains such truly awful policies — such as agricultural subsidies that raise food prices and lead to wasteful misuse of resources — that fly in the face of evidence and reason. Few politicians actively want bad policies. Instead, they’re motivated by the people who show up: the farmers benefiting from these programs. And, because they can’t see as directly the harmful effects their laws and regulations have on everyone else (higher prices of food, reduced variety, etc.), they continue to support policies most of us would be better off without.

Moreover, even those harmed frequently remain unaware of the harm being done. It would cost too much to become informed — more than we could recoup even if we were able to repeal those bad policies. So we remain, as public choice economists say, “rationally ignorant,” and since we remain ignorant of the burdens those policies place on us, we aren’t able to inform the politicians whom we vote into office. The special interests tend to be “squeakier wheels” than the rest of us.

It’s important to recognize that this isn’t the result of having “the wrong people” in office. It’s not something that can be fixed by electing better leaders. Instead, it’s just the way government works when it grows beyond certain narrow limits.

Another fact about government that ought to trouble the humble is just how far its reach extends. Imagine I have very particular values when it comes to educating children, and that I have certain beliefs about the best way to achieve those values. If I don’t control the state, my reach extends no further than my kids — and any children whose parents voluntarily participate in my program.

But if I can flex the state’s muscle in support of my values and beliefs, I can extend my reach to all the children in my town, or in my region, or even in my entire country. Nobody will have any choice but to bring their children up with the educational values I prefer.

If we’re good skeptics, this should concern us deeply, because those beliefs about the best way to educate children may turn out to be incorrect, in which case it’s not just a handful of kids harmed, but all of them. And what if parents disagree — as they do — on what “best” even means in this case? What if they simply have different values when it comes to education? A state without the proper limits forces us into a one-size-fits-all approach — one that assumes some person or group can definitively know what’s good for everyone. We should all be skeptical of such claims. We should all take a good dose of humility.

So what are those limits to government? What would a state based on a proper level of skepticism look like? It would be one restricted to providing an environment in which its citizens are free to pursue the good life as each understands it.

We can’t meaningfully pursue the good under constant threat of violence, so the state should protect us from others who would do us bodily harm. And we can’t acquire and make full use of the resources we need to lead good lives if we aren’t secure in our holdings, so the state should act to limit theft — and require thieves to compensate us for those thefts that do occur.

When the state does those things — when it protects us from violence, fraud, and theft — then it fulfills the role of freeing each citizen to pursue the good life in ways as personal and unique as his or her own values.

When the state does more, however — when it takes resources from us beyond what it needs to meet those duties and when it flexes its coercive might to force some of us to live by the values of others — it fails to grant us the dignity we deserve as rational, autonomous human beings. It substitutes its judgments for our own and places barriers in our pursuit of the good life.

In the end, if we need a state, we need it because of its usefulness to us in our pursuits of happiness. We need it for that, and no more. Having the proper degree of humility means recognizing that, no matter how certain we may feel that we have things figured out, we cannot use the state to force others into whichever mold we might prefer. To do so is to succumb to hubris and to abandon the lessons of history. What seems obvious today will very likely come off as risible tomorrow.

If we become humble, we will see the world as an often overwhelmingly complex place, filled with people on personal journeys to pursue happiness. We will be skeptical of calls to give the state power to do more than protect our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As another humble philosopher, John Locke, put it, “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Using violence to shape the lives of others in ways we prefer, but they do not, is anything but humble. Refraining from violence and resorting instead to voluntary persuasion is the humble — and libertarian — alternative.

Wisdom consists not only in realizing one’s powers, but in realizing their limits.

This essay originally appeared in Why Liberty?, an essay collection edited by Tom G. Palmer and published by Students for Liberty and the Atlas Network.


False Promises and Uncertain Economic Truths

Markets are overwhelmingly good, but the results of market processes aren’t always good for everyone, in every instance.

Markets are overwhelmingly good, but the results of market processes aren’t always good for everyone, in every instance. Pretending otherwise isn’t persuasive.

There’s an unfortunate tendency among some free market advocates to blame the victim: If you can’t find work, it’s because you’re lazy or you somehow screwed up. Hard work’s all that’s necessary to succeed. But of course that’s not true. It’s quite easy to think of counterexamples. We know creative destruction is a necessary part of a well-functioning economy. Market churn means people lose their jobs through no fault of their own, and shifts in technology and consumer preferences mean that skills once lucrative can suddenly become relatively worthless. Markets are overwhelmingly good, yes, and are responsible for the astonishing amelioration of poverty we’ve seen since the Industrial Revolution, but they have their victims.

A changing global economy has meant a changing American economy and a changing American economy has meant that some people who did well in the old pattern are having a harder time in the new. This harder time is felt by, among others, a segment of America’s lower-middle class who used to be able to find decent-paying jobs that demanded physical labor and the kinds of skills you don’t learn in school. That segment increasingly faces a fact about the modern economy: Unless you’re a knowledge worker, it’s become a whole lot harder to find a well-paying, stable, long-term job because the skills you bring to an employer aren’t as in demand as they used to be.

And that’s awful for the people going through it. We can say that free markets change over time and that those changes lead to more prosperity in the long term, and that’s true. But it doesn’t make life better for the machinist or construction worker without a college degree and without much retirement savings. Empathy seems an appropriate response by those of us not facing such hardship.

That even well-functioning markets hurt some people some of the time makes selling market solutions to policy problems often a difficult task. We know that the solution to unemployment or underemployment is more economic freedom. Get rid of the barriers to entry and the protectionist policies keeping afloat what would otherwise be failing firms. Enable private schools to create a robust and successful educational system so more people have the skills needed to succeed in a modern economy. Open trade with the rest of the world, so we can grow our economy, buy goods at lower prices, and sell into more markets.

But here’s the thing. Every one of those solutions ends up sounding, to the person economically hurting now, like saying, “Leave it alone and things will work themselves out. Don’t know quite how or when, but they will.” Market solutions are emergent solutions, and emergence takes time and can’t be planned or predicted. In fact, it’s the attempt to plan and predict that leads so many non-market-based policies to fail. Economists understand this and so largely trust markets. But most Americans aren’t economists.

I think this explains, in part, the appeal of people like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. We see them as misdiagnosing the problems and offering counter-productive, and sometimes abhorrent, “solutions.” Immigrants are taking your jobs. (They aren’t.) So let’s fix it right now but closing the borders. Trade with China is making us poor. (It isn’t.) So let’s fix it now by establishing quotas and tariffs. But to people hurting right now, people like Trump or Sanders offer something free markets can’t: certainty, even if illusory. These people right here are the cause of your problems. Punish or stop them and your problems will go away. America will go back to being great, with “great” meaning the way it was when low-information, low-skill Americans could spend their lives comfortably in the middle class. In other words, before America’s economy became modern. We don’t want that, of course. The economic visions of Trump and Sanders aren’t just backwards, but are dangerously retrograde policies that will hurt everyone without doing much to improve the lives of those who support such policies.

Liberty struggles when confronted with this combination of widespread economic ignorance and the political incentive for politicians to pander and promise solutions that are anything but. And I don’t know how to solve that. Nor do I believe there’s an easy solution. The incentives in politics run against us, and so we somehow need to get better at articulating the story of markets, of the voluntary and the emergent, and do it in a way that’s as compelling and hopeful in its rhetoric as the false hopes sold by those pitching meretricious intervention. Part of that means consciously avoiding a panglossian picture of markets, and recognizing that sometimes people get hurt by them, and that often that hurt is blameless.

Originally published at


People Don’t Owe You Money Just Because You Think You’re Awesome

Sorry, but it’s true.

Erin Biba doesn’t get paid much when she writes for online outlets and she’s pretty sure that’s other peoples’ fault. In a very silly essay at Medium, Biba explains how her “talent, critical thinking, ability to ask the right questions, and skill in explaining super complex topics”—presumably developed during her “$60,000 graduate journalism degree from Medill”—entitles her to more than the market’s willing to pay.

I can write and report a kickass story with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back. But the algorithm that decides how much I get paid for all that badass-ness doesn’t put any value on how good I am. It cares not at all how well written this story is or how much experience I have. All that’s important is how many times you guys click.

The going rate for this essay, she tells us, is “two and a half cents per click.”

Let me start by noting that, while $0.025 doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s actually not too bad. The essay runs just 612 words and they’re rather ranty and unpolished. I hope it took her less than an hour to write. But it’s likely getting a ton of traffic, as stuff that goes viral on Medium tends to do. How much? I don’t know. Probably more than my most popular column at this last year, at the very least, and that got 14,567 clicks. If I’d earned her rate, I’d have pocketed $364. Which isn’t bad. If she hits even twice that, she’ll get a nice pile of cash.

Still, the trouble with Biba’s tirade isn’t the numbers. It’s the sense of entitlement and the lack of, well, critical thinking and asking the right questions.

The core of her argument is just that online writing pays authors based on the traffic their writing generates and offers lower pay than many print outlets. Those print outlets, unable “to quantify the value of [the author’s] contribution to their business by counting clicks,” tend to pay more, and thus often pay to produce “great stories” instead of “the most popular ones.”

Biba reads this as print outlets “understanding the importance of a good writer,” while online sites care little for quality and want only traffic. Yet here’s an opportunity for Biba to ask one of those right questions she says she’s so skilled at asking. Namely, if the sort of writing print appreciates is so great, why are print sales in decline? Related: If those sorts of stories, the kind Biba wants to write, are so obviously better than the “journalism written entirely by amateurs with no experience, no education, and limited talent,” why do online outlets—which can meansure readership—ask for the latter and not the former?

Perhaps it’s that there’s just more of an audience for short and simple than there is for long and deep. And perhaps that’s always been the case, but in the past, in the print-only world, there wasn’t a way to measure it. So editors assumed everyone liked what they like (i.e., in-depth stories), when in fact most people actually would’ve preferred Buzzfeed listicles.

The fact is, if lots of people want what you produce, if what you produce is in demand, the market will compensate you accordingly. If Biba pulled in big checks when we had no way of measuring how much people actually wanted her writing, but now doesn’t when we do, then perhaps the problem is people just aren’t interested in what she writes. No matter how expensive her journalism degree or how talented she’s pretty sure she is.

Except, of course, for this particular instance of Millennial entitlement. I imagine it’ll pay her pretty well.

This essay original appeared at


The “Stupid and Evil” Fallacy in American Politics

The GOP catches much flack for its “obstructionist politics” and for being the “party of no.” They vote against proposals from President Obama and congressional Democrats, proposals that the President and his party peers know are the only way to dig America out of its recession. Who wouldn’t want to end the recession and put people back to work? ask the Democrats. The GOP, of course. They think only of themselves, the next election cycle, and their corporate overlords.

Progressives parrot this line of thinking all over the Internet. Democrats in Congress articulate it explicitly when, like Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, they say, “It is very clear that the Republicans in the Senate want this economy to fail.” But Democrats and their progressive allies are falling prey to the “stupid and evil” fallacy, one that has unfortunately become dominant in American politics. While it is certainly true that sometimes politicians are stupid and/or evil and sometimes they vote against something they know is a good solution just because doing so will net them political gain, the sad fact is that the “stupid and evil” fallacy is often the first explanation partisans jump to, not the last. We would be better off granting our opponents the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not stupid or evil.

The “stupid and evil” fallacy looks like this:

X is a problem. Y is the solution to X. Therefore, anyone who rejects Y must either be stupid (because they don’t realize that Y is the solution to X) or evil (because they want X to continue and so don’t want to solve it by employing Y).

Of course, another reason for rejecting Y is not stupidity or evil (most people aren’t stupid and most people aren’t evil). Rather, it is possible — and, in fact, likely — that rejection of Y results from the belief that Y is not a solution — or, not a good solution — to X.

Taking the specific case of the U.S. economy, congressional Democrats have identified high unemployment as a problem. And they’ve said that government spending, both on jobs creation and extended unemployment benefits, is the solution. Therefore, anyone who would vote against more government spending is either stupid (they don’t know that government spending will increase employment) or evil (they want to see unemployment remain high, either out of spite or because of other, vile interests).

Again, though, it is more likely that those who vote against government spending do so because they don’t believe government spending is the best solution to unemployment. In other words, they reject this principle of Keynesianism. Instead, they adopt one of the many alternative schools of thought that say there are better, more effective, and less costly (both in the near- and long-term) ways to solve the problem of unemployment. You are free to disagree with them and assert that Keynes was right, but that’s an empirical and methodological debate, one that necessarily draws on complex micro and macro economic principles, data, and historical experience.

In other words, showing that Keynes was right and Hayek, say, was wrong (or the other way around) isn’t easy. It’s intellectually demanding work. What is easy is demonizing those who disagree with you and fixing their disagreement not in genuine differences of opinion on complex matters of economics but in personal failings of moral character. That is easy, but it accomplishes nothing and only makes the person doing it look like a fool.


Paul Krugman’s Corrupt Confusion

Paul Krugman has a slam dunk argument for why libertarianism doesn’t work — provided his readers don’t know a thing about libertarianism and aren’t inclined to think critically about Krugman’s argument. It begins by quoting Milton Friedman, who tells us, as Krugman puts it, “that there’s no need for product safety regulation, because corporations know that if they do harm they’ll be sued.” But, ah ha! say Paul. Friedman’s an idiot because of, well, this:

In the wake of last month’s catastrophic Gulf Coast oil spill, Sen. Lisa Murkowski blocked a bill that would have raised the maximum liability for oil companies after a spill from a paltry $75 million to $10 billion.

Krugman thinks he has a cute syllogism here. 1) Milton Friedman says A. 2) The world is actually like B. 3) Therefore libertarianism is wrong.

“And don’t say that we just need better politicians,” Krugman says, cutting off what he sees as the libertarian’s only out. “If libertarianism requires incorruptible politicians to work, it’s not serious.”

Did you catch the problems? First, a libertarian could respond, “Yeah, Paul, that’s why we shouldn’t grant members of the legislature the power to set arbitrary limits on tort damages.” The solution isn’t incorruptible politicians. Rather, it’s to have perfectly corruptible ones without the authority to exercise their corruption.

Second, and more troubling for Krugman, is his admission that all politicians are corruptible. If that’s true (and it almost certainly is), then what does it say about Krugman’s constant calls for granting those same corruptible folks more power over our lives? Surely if Murkowski is corrupt enough to protect BP from tort damages, she’s corrupt enough to rig safety regulations in BP’s favor.

Krugman can’t have it both ways. If politicians are corrupt, then they’ll screw up both libertarian and progressive policies. The progressives have no solution but to hope for incorruptible politicians. Libertarians, on the other hand, have a very simple solution: take away the corrupt politicians’ power to do harm.