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I am grateful to Brad DeLong and Will Wilkinson for their thoughtful responses.
I agree with almost everything Brad DeLong says, and would add only one comment, with which I hope he will not disagree. He points out that those who defend institutions on non-utilitarian grounds nonetheless find it necessary to claim that the institutions that meet their standards will also promote human welfare. I would add, similarly, that defenders of institutions on the grounds that they promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number need also to add that they do not do this by leaving some behind in dire poverty, thus giving a nod to considerations of distribution.
People seem to be drawn to libertarianism because they value their liberty and resent, for example, being told that they must wear helmets when they ride their motorcycles. My question was whether libertarianism was in fact a doctrine that held certain institutions—free markets and limited government—to be justified by some independent idea of the value of liberty for the individual whose liberty it is.
I acknowledged the arguments for free markets on grounds of their greater efficiency, and I did not mean to dismiss them. Indeed, I emphasized early in my essay and again at the end that considerations of efficiency are important factors in the justification of institutions (although they do not seem to me to be the only thing of importance.) My point was just that an argument based on efficiency is quite different from one based on a conception of liberty as a fundamental value.
An argument based on efficiency is quite different from one based on liberty as a fundamental value.
The value of having control over various aspects of one’s life seemed to me a natural way of interpreting what lay behind the objections people have to being required to wear motorcycle helmets, and a natural way of understanding Nozick’s remark that we are individuals with our own lives to lead. In considering the possibility of a version of libertarianism that began from this value and looked for institutions that would best secure it for everyone, I did not refer to Hayek or Friedman because they do not seem to me to be following this path. Hayek explicitly rejects its starting point, the identification of liberty with control. (The Constitution of Liberty, pp. 16–17) (I thought this might also lie behind Wilkinson’s remark that he would be accepting the identification of liberty and control merely for the sake of argument.) Friedman allows for policies similar to those that I said this line of thought might lead to. But he does this on grounds other than the one I was considering. He suggests that public funding of education can be justified on the ground that education is a public good with “neighborhood effects,” and says that that if we are distressed by having very poor people around then alleviating poverty is also a public good. (Capitalism and Freedom, pp. 89, 191.) He also advocates a scheme of funding for vocational and professional training in order to rectify the underinvestment in human capital. (p. 105–107) These arguments, which do not appeal to the value, for individuals, of having a greater range of choices, are in contrast to the position of James Buchanan, whom I should have mentioned in this regard. He holds that just institutions would include public funding for education, and a tax on transfers of wealth between generations, because these are required to ensure that those born into poor families are not excluded from a “fair chance to play.” (Liberty, Market, and the State, pp. 133–136) Buchanan’s line of thinking is much closer to one I had in mind. But it is not, I take it, standard among libertarians.
If we should set aside my second and third lines of argument, this seems to leave two possibilities. The first is that the libertarian case for free markets and limited government rests on some other conception of liberty, which I did not consider. Wilkinson does not suggest such an alternative. The other possibility is that the “liberty” in “libertarianism” refers simply to the institutions that libertarians favor—free markets and limited government—which are justified on grounds other than the value of liberty (simply grounds of efficiency, as DeLong suggests, or broader grounds, as perhaps in the works Wilkinson cites in the footnote at the end of his comment.) If so, then although the conclusion I arrived at is still correct, my initial characterization of libertarianism—as founding a political program on an independent idea of liberty—is mistaken.
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