Friday, May 9, 2014

Dr. Duty or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Thick vs. Thin Libertarian Squabble

"Never to use violence more to his country than to his parents." Cicero's Divine Maxim of Plato appeals to an innate sense of justice ideally found in both the sovereign and the constituent. The sovereign has the responsibility to respect the autonomy of the constituent not to exceed acts egregious enough to warrant clapping mom and dad in the pillory. And the constituent has the obligation to act like an adult.

Both kinds of libertarians agree on the first half of that: to the extent the public suffers the existence of the state, its functions should be limited to providing law and order and should by no means be extended to how free individuals, singly and in the organizations great and small that they form, choose to direct their peaceful, productive energies. But the thin libertarians stop there. They hold that since liberty is a political project, confined to arguments about the proper scope of government, further discussions of social issues is outside the scope of libertarianism. Thick libertarians proceed as if the private choices of free individuals in society are important enough to discuss. They're willing to consider that private virtues like honor, decency, respect, and professionalism et al constitute the sinew that binds the skeleton of simple rule of law together. 

What can EE offer the debate? Good question. One of the troubles I have with the term "marketplace of ideas" is that it omits (or tends to omit) a tremendously important coordination mechanism: price. The sticker price for my ideas here on this blog is zero. All it costs you to read this post is some time, attention, and maybe a slight willingness to soften your priors a little. The goods on offer here in this marketplace of ideas are non-rival, non-excludable, and more to the point, (effectively) endlessly recombinable. As long as everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute to the discussion, fairness rules. Of course, this does not imply that everyone's contribution will be equally useful or compelling, but I urge you to refrain from using ex post judgement to critique ex ante institutional arrangements.

The natural exchange of ideas and talents between thick and thin libertarians is for the thin folks to direct their message towards the sovereign and for the thick folks to direct their message towards constituents. If I were a man of system arranging the men and women of the liberty movement as if arranging pieces upon a chess-board, that's what I'd do (ha ha, can you even imagine?). Unfortunately, any trade needs both offer and acceptance, and I'm not even sure there's been a proper offer tendered.

Marsellus Wallace, to Butch Coolidge: "The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That's pride fucking with you. Fuck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps."

Coase didn't make it perfectly clear in The Problem of Social Cost that sometimes the bargaining set is null, that sometimes pride does get in the way of what would otherwise be a fruitful transaction. If you find yourself teaching the Coase Theorem any time soon, please consider some brief classroom discussion on this too often neglected point.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?