6 Jul

So many responses to our Crooked Timber piece I can barely keep up (see my last post for an initial round-up).  And now the responses are generating their only little mini-wars.

These Bleeding Hearts

Let’s start with the Bleeding Hearts themselves.  Kevin Vallier has a lengthy reply, in which he concludes that the Bleeding Hearts “can have it all.” (I initially wanted to title our post “The Bleeding Hearts Can’t Have It All.” So at least we’re all the same kitschy page.)

Jason Brennan has some interesting statistics on Denmark and France that I know we’ll want to come back to.

Proving once again that he’s the menschiest of the menschen, Matt Zwolinski wonders “why are employers so mean?” Though I’ll admit I was given pause by this phrase: employers “prevent them [workers] from peeing too often.” What, pray tell, is “peeing too often?” Most libertarians are indebted to the subjective turn in Austrian economics, yet here we have one of them announcing that when it comes to nature’s call, there’s some kind of objective measure.

Though I already posted Jessica Flanigan‘s response in my last roundup, I have to cite this comment she added:

I’m friends with Alex and he calls himself a Marxist all the time. Chris Bertram has written a lot on Marx and seems to endorse some version of what the Analytical Marxists believe in his work. Corey Robin, who knows?

Tyler Cowens of the World, Unite!

Tyler Cowen continues doing whatever it is Tyler Cowen does, which apparently involves coming up with formulations like “mood affiliation,” whatever the fuck that is.

Henry Farrell nails him to the wall:

What would the world look like if GMU economics professors were treated similarly to workers in low-paid jobs with little protection? No offices – at best open cubicles, so that a supervisor could stroll by, making sure that the professors were doing the job that they were supposed to be doing. Monitoring of computers to prevent random websurfing. Certainly no air conditioning. Compulsory random drug testing. Body searches, in case professors were sneaking office supplies back home. Monitoring – at best – of bathroom breaks, and written demerits and termination of employment for professors who took too many of them. Perhaps Tyler might want to argue that such pervasive distrust and supervision would hurt productivity rather than help it – but it would seem difficult plausibly to reconcile such an argument with his prior claim that mooching, slacking and skiving off is endemic among his colleagues.

Matt Yglesias takes umbrage, claiming that Farrell and the rest of us are pie-in-the-sky airy-fairy theorists.

The in-the-clouds conceptual argument about libertarianism, freedom, and coercion is semi-interesting in an academic sense, but as policy analysis it doesn’t show much. In an important sense freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, but it doesn’t follow that we should want everyone to be a small-holding subsistence farmer merely because that would make him hard to coerce.

Farrell then nails Yglesias to the wall.

Matt’s alternative – which is to come up with a bunch of just-so stories about how we oughtn’t regulate work rules, because there’s a hypothetical high paying firm that searches its workers to stop theft and then there’s a hypothetical low paying firm that doesn’t, and we shouldn’t be punishing the hypothetical high paying firm because it might hurt workers is about as up-in-the-clouds as you can get. It abstracts away the shitty conditions that people have to endure, the politics of why they have to endure them, and any possible politics of collective action and reform. Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction is right on target here – it deals at length with the bogus standardized responses (it will only make things worse) that people come up with in response to reform. There’s a more general sound principle here. One should always be very suspicious when someone proposes that others endure nasty sounding conditions for their own good, which the someone proposing would never dream of countenancing for himself or herself. The proposal may not be made in bad faith, but it’s not likely to be made with any very great imaginative sympathy for its intended subjects.

Brad DeLong chimes in. Yglesias responds to Farrell.

And speaking of Cowen, Aaron Swartz has a hilarious parody of Cowen’s associate Alex Tbarrok’s response to us, which I mentioned in my previous post.

Odds and Ends

Belle Waring has a bracing intervention—spawning a vigorous and eye-opening comments thread—which I hope everyone will read. Will Wilkinson has some things to say, as does someone going by the moniker “Supply Side Liberal.”

Some interesting interventions, pro and con (I think), from Noah Smith and an unidentified graduate student (“I’m glad Corey Robin has been keeping a list of absurd abuses about people pissing their pants, but empirics 101 demands more. There’s maybe 100 solid links in this piece. But there’s 300 million Americans.”)

And, lastly, poor old Arnold King, whose original post I did feature in my previous post, doesn’t feel like he’s any getting any love. So…show him some love!


And in the midst of all, this story of a lifeguard fired for saving someone’s life is getting a lot of play. Jonah Goldberg uses it as an opportunity to rail against liability law and union regulations. Even though no unions were involved and the major culprit here, it seems, is the privatization of public services.

12 Responses to “Mini-Wars”

  1. Douglas D. Edwards July 6, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you’re fighting this war on the wrong front. It’s not hard to show that many libertarians are lacking in good will and empathy for workers (which is a separate question from what is true of the Bleeding Hearts specifically), nor have I ever doubted the truth of that (even decades ago, when I was a conservative!), but doing so will not significantly advance the cause of peeling away support from libertarian rationalizations for conservatism. Your intense loathing for the immediate policy implications of the most common forms of libertarianism is leading you astray. You need to focus instead on why anyone would be attracted to libertarianism in the first place. Hint: the answer is not solely, or even primarily, that it offers them a rationalization for engaging in, or tolerating, the abuse of workers.

    • David Kaib July 6, 2012 at 10:43 pm #

      The answer to your question, I think, is that lots of people agree with the implicit claim that there is only coercion when it comes to government but not the employment relationship, or to put it another way, that government ‘intervention’ is unnatural and whatever happens outside of government is ‘private’ and natural. (This problem is not at all limited to libertarians.) And the vast majority of the argument has been about that, not about internal mental states.

      The important thing is that by failing to see the threats to freedom that are endemic in the workplace, especially absent the protections of law and unions, libertarianism (including of the BHL variety) does provide a rationalization for the abuse of workers, regardless of the motivations. They, like neoliberals (e.g. Matt Yglesias) insist that they share the same goals as those on the left, and just disagree on means. But as this exchange has shown, when faced with this argument, they have either dismissed concerns for workers or insisted that economic reasons probably justified these abuses.

      In the end, I doubt the goal of these posts is to convert self identified libertarians, who are too small a group to make much of a difference in terms of numbers. I think it’s to lay bare the difference between a left version of freedom (which means protecting people from government and non-governmental threats as well) and a right version (which sees government efforts to protect people from abusive employers is a threat to freedom). Indeed, if it helps unites the left leaning (even a little) and provides just a bit of much needed confidence, I’d consider it a great victory. But advancing a different, and more valid, approach to freedom seems pretty central to undermining support for libertarianism to me.

      • jonnybutter July 7, 2012 at 12:20 am #

        Thanks so much for your excellent comment David.

        I would say to Douglas that it is not the least bit difficult to imagine why a serious, sincere, broad minded and broad hearted person might be attracted to particular strains of libertarianism – namely, variants of what we call civil libertarianism. I would bet that very few/none of us in this borgia of the left are not staunch civil libertarians. But call yourself that around someone who identifies as just-a-libertarian, and you tend to get scoffed at. So, what’s the essential difference from a Left pov? Paine on the one hand, and Hayak or Rothbard on the other, seem to occupy different poles. I am not baiting you or anything like that – I apologize for my hair trigger post a couple days ago, btw. I really want to know (and wanted to know then!) if there’s something I’m just missing. What’s the nub of it? Most of us would agree with David, more or less, and see just-libertarianism as more restrictive of freedom than the civil kind: the latter is about protecting against both state and private power, whereas the former is only about protecting against state power. I think the civil libertarian idea is that a human has an individual quality which supersedes both kinds of power without the need for altogether eliminating either one. That seems more workable than just getting rid of the state.

        There’s also the political component. Contrary to weird contemporary cliches, there is no such thing as ‘voting with your feet’ nor with your pocketbook. Neither moving nor buying something is in any sense voting. We forgot it was a metaphor, I think! We still get to vote to influence the state.

      • Douglas D. Edwards July 7, 2012 at 4:50 am #

        Thanks for your response, David. As to numbers and influence:

        In the end, I doubt the goal of these posts is to convert self identified libertarians, who are too small a group to make much of a difference in terms of numbers.

        Even self-identified libertarians are a greater force than you give them credit for; Ron Paul’s performance in the Republican primaries was an indication of that. But, more importantly, libertarians have a level of influence on the Right out of all proportion to their numbers. Most American conservatives, even those who do not self-identify as libertarians, are heavily influenced by libertarian thinking; the rhetoric of individual freedom, free markets, and limited government is ubiquitous on the Right. And at conservative think tanks, libertarians tend to be the brains of the outfit, as I think Corey recognizes; no doubt it’s part of his reason for being interested in opening a dialogue with them, despite his revulsion at their policy positions.

        Given the level of influence right-libertarians have, left-libertarians assume a significance to which their current numbers and level of influence are largely irrelevant. If there is any halfway-plausible way of driving a wedge between libertarian free-market theory and reactionary conservatism, it deserves intensive investigation from the Left — even from leftists who have no theoretical sympathy for any form of libertarianism. Likewise, dialogue (on theory — not on the warmth, or otherwise, of their hearts!) with libertarians who show even the faintest tendency toward the Left should be actively cultivated.

        The fundamental division between public and private spheres is not a basic premise of libertarian theory, but a lemma, an intermediate conclusion. Demands for laissez-faire in the private sphere are not necessarily a sign of fundamentally different values, still less of coldness of heart, but of differences in reasoning. There are those like Kevin Carson who (as far as I can thus far tell) start in the same theoretical place as right-libertarians but end up as far-Left anarchists rather than conservatives. At Crooked Timber, in the comments on the BRG post, Roderick T. Long from BHL mentioned that he and another Bleeding Heart (Gary Chartier) were in favor of radical worker empowerment; he was largely ignored. Engage not only with Flanigan and Zwolinski, but also with Carson, Long, and Chartier. In my opinion, the goal of prying apart conservatism from its libertarian camouflage is neither hopeless nor ineffectual.

  2. Robert July 7, 2012 at 12:54 am #

    Yglesias.  I have no idea why anyone on the left ever paid him any attention at all in the first place.  Mundanity, banality, faux-technocratic bullshitting, equivocation, default status-quoism wrapped in feigned iconoclasm, condescension – all key ingredients for repetitive milquetoast “analyses” that one can find anywhere one looks – indeed, everywhere one looks.  

    Why bother with him?

    After Mike Elk took him apart over at The Exiled, there was a (fleeting) moment during which I thought I might never have to read his name again.  While I can certainly appreciate the urge to challenge his treacherous nonsense, and to heap upon his pretensions as much ridicule as can be mustered, I just don’t know how much longer I can stand choking down little snippets of his cutesy neoliberal apologias, as quoted on pages written by people who actually have principles.  A few more years of his tripe taken seriously as part of the shopworn tradition of”progressive-policy-wonkish” commentary, and Verso will have to publish a book on him as part of their Counterblasts series.  Corey can write it.

  3. Sam Holloway July 7, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    I believe Belle Waring’s post is most instructive for me. Being a woman, she’s less capable of evading the harsh realities behind the hair-splitting in which some are able to engage when discussing libertarianism. Corey Robin’s focus on the private vs. public spheres is instructive, as well. When one is a member of a traditionally oppressed or disenfranchised group (e.g. women, blacks, gays), then one will likely have a real-world understanding (as opposed to a theoretical opinion of an abstract such as ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’) of the potential value of the state in defending the rights of members of said groups.

    I’m guessing this is why we don’t see many more libertarians vociferously protesting our nation’s ever-growing corporatism, militarism, and imperialism. These are the largest, most obvious, and most oppressive manifestations of ‘big government,’ but they are also the sort that tend to expand and reinforce private spheres of power for preferred (read: white, male) groups. These manifestations, left unchecked, will also (if history offers any indication) bring about the collapse of the state. Maybe this makes me a ‘statist,’ but I have no gamer-induced or Hollywood-inspired fantasies about the viability of a Balkanized or stateless North America. Think Somalia, but with more firepower and more brutal religious nuts. (On that note, I highly recommend the writings of Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler; they are strong antidotes to the abysmally childish pseudo-ethics of Ayn Rand.)

  4. David Kaib July 7, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    Douglas: I’ve got numerous thoughts about this, and probably will write a post (or posts) on the subject soon, but few quick thoughts.

    You’re right that the small numbers don’t dictate libertarians’ power. It was careless of me to suggest that, since I tend to rail about the conflation of these two things. I think the power of these ideas is less about it’s influence on the right (where we are largely in agreement) than more broadly, which is why I’m glad to see this conversation over employment coercion taking place on the left. For me, the need for the left to mobilize, organize, and become more confident in its own ideas is the key to any progress (that is, doing the same things that those on the right have done to build power). I can see you haven’t been convinced on this point, but I do wonder why.

    The private-public thing, to my mind, is less a basic premise of libertarianism than it is a fundamental premise of most of our political culture. But this will require more thought and fleshing out.

    I appreciate you sorting the BHL crowd for me a bit and I do plan on doing more reading over there. I do wonder if the reason some of the things some of them have said haven’t gotten as much attention is because the original post noted this:

    “When they do try to address that unfreedom, as a group of academic libertarians calling themselves “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” have done in recent months, they wind up traveling down one of two paths: Either they give up their exclusive focus on the state and become something like garden-variety liberals or they reveal that they are not the defenders of freedom they claim to be.”

  5. David Kaib July 7, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    Jonny, I think civil libertarianism is a very attractive political stance (also I agree with it) but there is also something to the sense that economic regulations and taxes are (often) onerous. The tax code seems as if it’s been designed to make people frustrated with government, for example. And I think some people look at large corporations which operate with many special privileges and think libertarianism is the answer. Just as we need a better view of freedom to challenge the (standard) libertarian version, we also need a common language (and some policy proposals) to address this problem. (Personally, I like Jamie Galbraith’s idea of the Predator State, which both offers a critique of this as well as connecting it to conservative “anti-government” rhetoric.)

  6. jonnybutter July 8, 2012 at 10:10 am #

    but there is also something to the sense that economic regulations and taxes are (often) onerous

    Is this seriously at issue? (and how is this outside the scope of civil libertarianism? It is precisely IN its scope, is it not? I too like Jamie Galbraith’s formulation, btw). I think it’s a straw man, and one which plays into aforementioned GOP ‘anti-government’ scheme: wreck the government as much as you can to prove that Government Is Bad, except for the courts (depending on the judges), cops and military.

    I was asking about general theory. I don’t understand what’s attractive about libertarianism as a general practical theory vs either civil libertarianism or anarchism. Libertarianism is certainly attractive in specific cases – for example, the relative frictionlessness of digital networks. But as a general practical theory, I just honestly don’t understand the appeal.

  7. jonnybutter July 8, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    The tax code seems as if it’s been designed to make people frustrated with government, for example.

    The current tax code in the US was both virtually and literally written by the people the libertarians think need to be freed.

    policy proposals

    Policy proposals are rhetorically worthless because libertarians are against policy (unless it’s one of theirs, which is simply a stepping stone to freedom, don’t you know). ‘Policy proposals’ is where the discussion with libertarians always falls apart, anyway – notice the deliberate misreading of BRG’s position on UBI by Jessica F – which is a form of cutting off discussion (let’s call it what it is please). They can never lose the argument precisely because libertarianism is a hobby.


  1. Footnotes « Blue Rondo à la Turk - July 6, 2012

    [...] Corey Robin rounds up responses to a piece he co-wrote at Crooked Timber. [Corey Robin] [...]

  2. Wow, Tyler Cowen, How Much Paper Do They Steal at GMU? And Other Responses to the Libertarians « Corey Robin - July 13, 2012

    [...] my last roundup on the response to Chris Bertram’s, Alex Gourevitch’s, and my piece on workplace [...]

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