Addressing “Extremer Extremists”

Like many of the other bloggers and readers here at the VC, I hold many extreme political views – “extreme” in the sense that they are distant from those of most of the general public. I’m probably among the most libertarian 1-2 percent of the American population. On the other hand, there are clearly libertarians out there who are more extreme than I am. They favor an even smaller role for government or would abolish the state entirely. Some also diverge from majority opinion more than I do in other ways. Why do I disagree with “extremists” who are even more extreme than I am?

Economist Bryan Caplan has an interesting post devoted to that kind of question:

I’m an extremist. I freely admit it….

Still, no matter how extreme you are, there are almost always people on “your side” who are even more extreme than you are…. [Y]ou probably spend a lot more time attacking those who don’t take your views far enough rather those who take them too far. But the fact that there are people more extreme than you is revealing. You must think there’s some reason why it’s wrong to be any more extreme than you are.

My question: What precisely are those reasons?

The most obvious umbrella responses:

1. Public relations. Views more extreme than your own are counter-productive because they alienate the moderates you need to convince to get better results.

2. Transition costs. While you agree with the extremer extremists about the ultimate goal, they underrate the transition costs of getting from here to there….

3. Latent pluralism. Despite your often one-sided rhetoric and disdain for the “other side(s),” they actually make some valid points; they just overstate them. Thus, even if you habitually dismiss the view that statist policies give bad incentives, you might ultimately agree that your policies would provide disturbingly bad incentives if they were pushed further than you advocate. Picture a socialist who opposes a 100% marginal tax rate….

4. Papered-over fundamental differences. Even if you psychologically and sociologically identify with your extremer extremists, you don’t philosophically identify with them. They’re just fellow travelers who fail to grasp the principles that really count….

Bryan’s point 1 isn’t really a reason to reject the more extreme view. At most, it’s a justification for not revealing that you hold that position, in order to avoid alienating moderates. A genuine “extremer extremist” can still choose to seem more moderate than he really is for public relations reasons. In any event, I don’t soft-pedal the substance of my views on issues I regularly write about for the sake of attracting moderates, though I am very conscious of this issue when it comes to questions of style. I might act differently if I were running for public office or gunning for a judgeship. But fortunately I’m not.

Point 2 is potentially significant. There are various government programs whose creation I consider to be unjustified that I would not abolish immediately, because of reliance interests. In most such cases, however, I would still want to abolish them gradually rather than leave them in place permanently. So this is not really a big area of disagreement between me and more extreme libertarians.

The fourth point is a bigger issue for me. Many of the libertarians who are more extreme than I am believe in absolute property rights, whereas I do not. I think utilitarian considerations matter also, and individual rights (including property rights) can sometimes legitimately be sacrificed if there is a large enough utilitarian benefit. However, some libertarians who are more extreme than I am actually hold very similar fundamental values. Economist David Friedman and Bryan Caplan himself are good examples. Both of them also reject absolute rights and are partial utilitarians.

The really big factor for me is ultimately point 3, “latent pluralism.” There are a few market failures (mostly certain public goods problems) that I think private sector institutions can’t handle, while government has at least a reasonable chance of doing better. I think liberals and conservatives (to say nothing of socialists) greatly overstate the frequency of such examples. But I believe they are correct about a small but important set of cases. I’m familiar with the more extreme libertarian and anarchist literature arguing otherwise, some of which makes excellent points. But I don’t find it fully convincing.

I plead guilty to spending much more time criticizing views that are less libertarian than mine than those which are even more so. Bryan suggests this is a result of “my-side” bias. Perhaps so. But it’s also because libertarians more extreme than me are fairly rare and have very little influence. If I lived in a much more libertarian society where my views were closer to the middle of the political spectrum, I would certainly devote more time to writing about libertarians who are more extreme than I am.

That said, I have in fact devoted a few posts to airing my differences with more extreme libertarians, such as here, here, and here. And here’s an audio of a debate on libertarianism and foreign policy between Bryan and myself, which addresses one major example.

UPDATE: In the initial version of this post, I accidentally forgot to include a link to Bryan’s post. I have now fixed that error.